China goes to polls in strictly controlled local elections

Some 900 million can vote but official committees choose candidates

This week saw China's president, Xi Jinping, place a vote into a ballot box, a rare sight in a country run with an iron hand by the Communist Party, which takes its mandate not from pluralist backing but from the 1949 revolution that swept it to power.

All important decisions are taken by the party and its organs, ostensibly through the annual parliament, the National People's Congress, which acts as a debating forum for legislation that is always passed with a massive majority.

However, once every five years Chinese people aged 18 and over are allowed to vote to choose local representatives for the People’s Congresses, the lowest rungs on the ladder in China’s power structure.

It’s the world’s largest election in terms of voter numbers – some 900 million people will be able to vote in this year’s elections – but also possibly one of the least representative.

China has been quick to pounce on Donald Trump's shock win as proof of the farcical, circus-like chaos of American democracy, and this week has seen official state media contrast the US election with China's well-organised form of democracy.

However, in reality, the voting apparatus is completely controlled by the party, and only party-approved candidates receive permission to stand from official election committees.

Independent platforms

Candidates standing on independent platforms are quickly removed, and some have been placed under house arrest or warned off. In one case this week, a BBC TV crew seeking to interview an independent candidate in the local elections was roughed up and forced away by a large group of plain-clothes security thugs.

Voting takes place over a couple of months and will elect about 2.5 million local-government officials.

Mr Xi cast his ballot at a polling station in the Zhongnanhai district where the party has its headquarters, as did the other members of China's ruling standing committee of the politburo – Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli.

“Xi said the county- and township-level election is a major political event of the country, requiring adherence to the party’s leadership, democratic spirit and acting in accordance with laws, to ensure the people’s right to vote and the right to be elected,” Xinhua news agency reported.

The China Daily newspaper quoted Liu Wei of Renmin University of China as saying: "Elections in China are becoming more open and transparent. Participation is crucial and the people have shown great enthusiasm."

Xinhua quoted an anonymous expert from Fudan University in Shanghai saying the Chinese system had a requirement that an "appropriate proportion" of women deputies and those of ethnic minorities participated in the elections.