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Rural Chinese begin tasting democracy 'lite'

Monkey Rock votes in a 'populist' and joins some 200,000 other villages electing their own officials.

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Candidate Gao Zhi Li didn't need Democratic strategist James Carville. Facing skeptical voters, Mr. Gao, a tall ethnic Manchurian, did what any savvy Western politician might do: He ran as an outsider, a man of the people.

Gao's electorate, however, were about 550 stoic Chinese farmer-peasants, gathered outside in a freezing schoolyard to vote by secret ballot. Gao ran for village chief of Houshi (Monkey Rock) - an outcropping of frozen tundra in China's northeast Jilin Province, where the principal industry is corn and sugar beets. The power structure Gao wanted to avoid identifying with: the local Communist Party.

"You all know me, I'm one of you," Gao said from a podium, in what turned out to be the winning speech. "I will put farmers' interests first. I will not be corrupt."

China's villages now routinely experiment with a word that has only recently been spoken casually around steaming peasant hot pots - democracy. Partly, the estimated 830,000 village elections in China are an attempt by the central government in Beijing to adjust to land reforms of the 1980s. Partly, they are an attempt to stay a step ahead of the evolving sentiments and pressures brought by 900 million peasants who make up the bulk of China, and who have begun to shoulder a greater share of living costs - higher taxes and food costs, price rises on fertilizers, even new fees for those who want a higher education.

"Chinese have always worried about feelings in the countryside, and today there are more cases of instability," says a rural expert in Beijing. "The party needs to solve the authority problem. If they can keep 60 percent of the farmers happy, that will be positive."

Nor do elections mean the Communist Party is folding its tents in rural China. The popularly elected village council and chief exist in parallel with the local party structure. The village council has no power of the purse, or of police, and no real authority. About 80 percent of the village heads in Jilin, in fact, are also party members. (Party members make up 70 percent of elected village chiefs across China, officials say.)

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