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China's voters head to the polls under new elections laws. But Communist Party retains control of candidates' selection

Election season has arrived in Peking. But the political ritual has brought little excitement, except in a few ``youth precincts,'' and there is little interest in the outcome.

There is, however, official concern about how newly revised election laws will work out. Among other changes, voters are no longer required to vote and candidates can be elected by a majority of the actual voters rather than by a majority of eligible voters. The minimum number of candidates in excess of seats has been lowered from 50 percent to only a little more than 30 percent and the minimum number of voters required to nominate candidate has been increased from four to 10.

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Contrary to some reports, these new rules are not necessarily more democratic and may actually strengthen the Communist Party's control. The elections to be held this week in key districts in Peking will decide representation to district-level people's congresses, the lowest-level assemblies elected directly by popular vote. The Peking polls are part of the third round of nationwide elections for these congresses since the election system was reintroduced in 1980.

Chinese are often bemused by foreign interest in their elections. Most Chinese see voting as an idea borrowed from the West which has little relevance to government. Since the people's congress is almost powerless, especially at the lower levels, there is little at stake. People often vote as a civic duty. But since they frequently do not know the candidates, it is common practice to select the first names listed on the ballot.

After the bitter lessons of 1980, when a few democratic activists were suppressed trying to nominate their own candidates and introduce Western-style campaigning, Chinese intellectuals have lost interest in elections as a way of achieving political reform.

``People have reevaluated the role of free elections in bringing democracy,'' said a former student activist from the 1980 elections. ``After we have raised the educational and cultural level of the people, [they] can understand the candidates and their ideas, and they can elect the proper person to be their representative. Until now, this has not been practical.''

Mao Tse-tung once said he distrusted elections. But last week, Deng Xiaoping, China's senior leader, hinted that future political reform could include a larger voters' role. Mr. Deng told Hong Kong visitors that China could have universal suffrage at the turn of the century when the country's education level was higher and other conditions were suitable. He added a warning that Hong Kong, which has been debating whether to introduce direct elections for its legislative council before China takes control in 1997, must not copy Western democracy.

It is not clear what Deng meant by universal suffrage, unless he was referring to expanding the use of direct elections to chose members of the people's congresses. China's Constitution says that the National People's Congress holds supreme state power, but its deputies are appointed by provincial assemblies, which are in turn selected by lower-level congresses.

In the current polls, election committees appear to be scrupulous in adhering to the rules, perhaps because of last year's student protests.

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One common abuse of election rules has been the manipulation of the nominating process. This was the cause of student demonstrations at a university in Hefei last December, which triggered a wave of nationwide student protests. A recent newspaper commentary indicated the problem continues.

``In some units, voters feel frustrated because the leaders have already made the decision who will become the candidates,'' said the China Law News in a recent commentary. ``We should try hard to prevent this kind of thing from happening.''

As in other socialist countries, China's nominating process lacks procedural guarantees. In Peking's largest district of Chaoyang, for instance, more than 17,000 people were nominated this year for 340 seats in the district congress. The final name lists for all precincts aimed at a total of about 600 candidates.

At the precinct level, procedures for reducing hundreds of names to three or four candidates are vaguely defined and involve ``consultations'' among groups of voters, according to a municipal election official.

The nominating process often brings to the top the senior party, management, and labor-union officials in the precinct, as well as model workers. Party control of the selection is apparent. Across the country, only 4 percent of the population are party members, but the people's congresses at all levels are dominated by the party.

After the 1984 elections in Chaoyang, for instance, some 45 percent of the deputies were party members. This year an official said he expected some 60 percent of the new deputies would be from the party.

The changes in election rules, adopted last December before the student protests, make it possible for a delegate to be elected by a minority if voter turnout is low. In such cases, it would be easier for party members to determine the outcome, since they can be more easily motivated to vote.

``The new rules are good since they mean people are no longer forced to vote,'' said another Peking official, but the official added she was concerned that a handful of voters could carry an election.

In yesterday's Page 9 story on elections in China, a remark by Deng Xiaoping should have read that China would have general elections at the end of the century, and not universal suffrage. China already has universal suffrage. The mistake was an error in translation by the Chinese and Hong Kong press. In a Page 3 story on minorities in journalism, Charles Fancher of the Detroit Free Press was incorrectly identified as Charles F. Sancher.

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