EXERCISING RIGHTS: Voters cast ballots during a simultaneous election for deputies to the people's congresses of county and township in Yulong Naxi Autonomous County of Lijiang City in southwest China's Yunnan Province on November 8, 2007 (CFP)
An amendment to the Electoral Law of the National People's Congress and Local People's Congresses of the People's Republic of China providing equal legislative representation to rural and urban people was ratified at the closing meeting of the Third Session of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, on March 14. Li Lin, Director of the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, elaborated on the amendment and outlined its effect on the Chinese people during an interview with Beijing Review reporter Yin Pumin. Some excerpts follow:
Beijing Review: What are some of the major points of the amendment to the Electoral Law?
Li Lin, Director of the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Li Lin: The latest amendment to the Electoral Law can be summarized as one focus and eight highlights.
One focus pertains to electing deputies to the people's congresses based on the same population ratio for both urban and rural areas.
Article 7 of the amendment stipulates that the "number of deputies to the National People's Congress shall be allocated by its Standing Committee on the basis of the population of each province, autonomous region and municipality directly under the Central Government, and in accordance with the principle that each deputy represents the same number of urban or rural people and the requirement guaranteeing an appropriate number of deputies for every region, ethnic group and sector of society."
"The specific allocated number of deputies to the National People's Congress shall be decided by its Standing Committee."
Article 5 of the amendment states the "number of deputies to local people's congresses shall be allocated by the standing committees of local people's congresses or the election committees at the same level on the basis of the populations of the administrative areas at the next lower level or the populations of the electoral districts in their own administrative areas and in accordance with the principle that each deputy represents the same number of urban or rural people and the requirement guaranteeing an appropriate number of deputies for every region, ethnic group and sector of society. In people's congresses of counties and autonomous counties, there shall be at least one deputy representing townships, ethnic minority townships, or towns with an exceptionally small population."
"The measures for allocating the number of deputies to the local people's congresses shall be formulated respectively by the standing committees of the people's congresses of provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the Central Government according to the measures for allocating the number of deputies to the National People's Congress and based on their specific local conditions."
The eight highlights are as follows:
First, among deputies to the people's congresses at all levels, "there shall be an appropriate number of grassroots deputies, especially from among workers, farmers and intellectuals."
Second, the amendment adds a special chapter to the Electoral Law about "the organizational bodies for elections," providing specific provisions on the establishment, withdrawal, duties and work requirements of election committees.
Third, the upper limit of the number of deputies to the people's congress of a township has been revised from "shall not exceed 130" to "shall not exceed 160."
Fourth, "recommended candidates for deputies shall provide basic information such as personal identification and a curriculum vitae to the election committee or the presidium of the people's congress" and "a citizen shall not be deputy to two people's congresses in administrative areas which are not subordinate to each other."
Fifth, the amendment adds "the number of deputy candidates recommended by political parties and organizations either jointly or separately, or by each voter or deputy through signing up as a group for recommendation, shall not exceed the number of deputies to be elected in the electoral district or electoral unit."
Sixth, "election committees shall, upon request of voters or candidates, arrange meetings between deputy candidates and voters to allow deputy candidates to introduce themselves and answer voters' questions."
Seventh, "the election of deputies to the National People's Congress and local people's congresses shall be conducted strictly in accordance with statutory procedures and be subject to supervision. No organization or individual shall, by any means, interfere with voters or deputies in freely exercising their right to vote."
Eighth, the amendment adds, "election committees shall set up polling stations and conduct elections based on the distribution of voters in each electoral district and in accordance with the principle of facilitating voters to vote. If the voters live in a relatively concentrated area, the election committee may hold an election meeting to conduct the election. Voters who have difficulty moving around due to illness or other reasons, or who are dispersed over wide areas where transportation is inconvenient may, cast their votes in mobile polling boxes."
When taking a secret ballot, the election committee should set up "confidential polling booths."
Given a number of amendments to the Electoral Law in past years, why should we say it is the right time today to realize the same ratio of deputies to the represented population in elections of people's congress deputies in both rural and urban areas?
Since the reform and opening-up policy was implemented in the late 1970s, China's economy and society have developed rapidly, urbanization has progressed swiftly, and the urban and rural population composition has changed considerably. Based on new circumstances and situations, the NPC Standing Committee has made timely improvements to the electoral system, and has amended and improved the provisions on electing deputies to people's congresses based on different population ratios in urban and rural areas. When the Electoral Law was revised in 1995, the rural to urban population ratio represented by a deputy to the NPC or to the people's congress of the province or autonomous region was amended to four to one from eight to one.
Today, as the ratio of urban to rural residents narrows, it may be time to realize equal electoral rights for both groups. Hence, the amendment adopts the same ratio of deputies to the represented population in elections of people's congress deputies in one step to manifest the principle of equal electoral rights for each citizen, region and ethnic group.
Why does the amendment specifically mention the secret balloting system?
The secret balloting system is exercised in most areas of China and has proven effective. This time, the amendment makes a mandatory stipulation to the system and the setup of confidential polling booths, which means the confidential polling booths must be used during elections.
The secret balloting system not only prevents bribes, thus maintaining the fairness and authenticity of elections, but also provides a free environment for voters to express their inclinations, including the choice to oppose or abstain. Besides, it can also prevent election organizers and leaders from influencing voters by abusing their so-called "supervising rights."
As the amendment tries to manifest the principle of equality, why does it avoid the issue of the floating population's participation in elections?
Currently, reform of the residence registration system is proceeding but procedures are not yet in place to solve this issue; therefore, the amendment to the Electoral Law does not make provisions to China's floating population at this time. Localities may, in accordance with the guiding principles of the documents regarding election work for new terms of office in people's congresses, take effective measures to ensure the floating population's rights, such as rural migrant workers in cities, to vote and run for office.
Can the amendment to the Electoral Law achieve its expected results? And what are some of the difficulties facing the amendment?
The Electoral Law is an important law guaranteeing citizens exercising their political rights. It is also a legal foundation for the system of People's Congress. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and especially since the reform and opening up in the late 1970s, the electoral system has played an important role in China's democratic politics. I do believe the amendment to the Electoral Law this time will be most effective. Of course, there will be a gradual process of development, since it's nearly impossible to realize the anticipated target 100 percent all at once. A process will be necessary for citizens to become familiar with it.
Still, the proportion of deputies from the grassroots level is a major concern. Currently, a large number of NPC deputies are government officials, therefore, guaranteeing an appropriate number of deputies from among workers, farmers and intellectuals is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
The proportion of female deputies is another question. The Electoral Law guarantees a certain number of female deputies on principle, but the requirement is mainly in regards to the phase of selecting candidates but not to the result of elected officials. Actually, the proportion of female deputies elected to people's congresses at different levels is still relatively low today.
What effect will the Electoral Law amendment have on the construction of a Chinese socialist democracy and China's legal system?
Realizing the same ratio in elections of people's congress deputies "at one go" is beneficial to guaranteeing equal rights for rural and urban residents and to further developing socialist democracy.
Election of people's deputies is the starting point for vertical democracy. The amendment this time will exert the following positive effects on China's democratic and legal construction:
Chinese democracy will be strengthened and people's rights "to be the masters of their own destiny" safeguarded as a result of the amendment.
Farmers will also be encouraged to study and practice democracy by participating in more equal and open elections, which will be beneficial to promoting the development of democracy among China's widespread population.
With the rural population's increased participation, the supervisory functions of the people's congresses over government officials who are appointed by the legislative body will be enhanced.
Guaranteeing equal representation of rural and urban populations is in accordance with the Constitutional right of respect for and protection of human rights.