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BEIJING — On a cold January morning in the Caoyuan (Grass Garden) neighborhood of east Beijing, residents huddled together to watch the hustings. Yang Guiying stepped up to speak. “If I am elected, our committee will think for the residents here, help them when they are in need and provide the best service we can.” Five other candidates followed, some visibly nervous, before ballot papers were distributed and votes cast.

An election official chalked up each vote on a blackboard, until loud applause greeted Yang’s modest entry into the record books. By securing 43 of the total 48 votes, she became head of the first democratically elected neighborhood committee in Beijing’s Dongcheng district.

Following successful trials in 200 neighborhoods like Caoyuan since the beginning of the year, Beijing announced that from June 1 this experiment in local democracy will spread throughout the capital’s 5,000 neighborhood committees. Twenty other cities across China have begun similar experiments to strengthen grassroots democracy in urban areas and complement village committee elections under way in the countryside.

By stipulating “open and fair” elections for all neighborhood committees, the lowest and most intrusive rung of Communist Party power, Beijing intends to make the committees more accountable to their constituents. The Chinese government also hopes younger, more professional candidates will replace the army of snooping grannies, nicknamed “bound-feet detectives,” who for decades have waited at street corners, noting all who come and go. Besides acting as party and police informants, committee members are on high alert for pregnancies that violate China’s one-child policy.

Yet as China modernizes its economy and society, neighborhood committees are being transformed into service-oriented welfare agencies, aimed at the victims of change. Traditional sources of social support — state-run “work units” and extended families — are weakening as bankrupt factories lay off workers and busy offspring ignore retired parents. A tide of migrant workers, scapegoats for worsening crime, increases the pressure on crowded neighborhoods.

The committees used to have more of a supervisory role,” commented Beijing resident Bai Xiang. “They are still the eyes and ears of the government, but now they offer services to residents like helping old people, finding jobs and getting permits for new arrivals.” As social mores relax and divorce rates soar, the grannies must restrain their nosy instincts. “Now they don’t interfere if people live together before marriage, which is more and more common,” said Bai.

To reflect these changes, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs is rebranding the groups as “community service committees,” to be run by younger and better-qualified personnel, educated to at least senior middle-school level. The ministry hopes its reforms will attract both university graduates and more experienced managers made redundant by state-run firms.

If the new recruits win voters’ support, they will still assist with state priorities like family planning, and propagate the messages of the day, but government interference should decrease. Committee members are encouraged to model themselves on the property management committees responsible for new high-rise and residential buildings.

While the new electoral regulations effective in Beijing from June 1 specify that any “lawful citizen” aged 18 or above can elect committee members or stand for election, they still fall somewhat short of a “one man, one vote” principle. Over a three-month period, a series of elections reduced the 814 families in Yang Guiying’s Caoyuan neighborhood to six candidates for the six committee positions. First, the families were divided into 16 groups to nominate promising members of the community. Each group then selected three representatives, and these 48 representatives chose six individuals from the listed nominees.

On Jan. 16, only the 48 representatives participated in the final ballot to decide responsibilities — committee head, deputy head and four ordinary committee posts. Yet even this limited representation represents a wider franchise than previously when the local government and party handpicked the committees. By the end of June, local authorities hope to complete elections in the other 400 neighborhood committees in Dongcheng district.

The victory of 58-year-old Yang hardly came as a surprise. A party member boasting 38 years of community work, Yang was also the incumbent committee head. While the government still recognizes the value of experience and continuity and the tendency of residents to trust people they know best, it is encouraging more interest from people like 36-year-old Wu Zhimin, the laid-off worker elected Yang’s deputy.

In the eyes of more progressive officials, the dream candidate resembles Gong Ping, just 19 when she took on six other residents in Xingfu Beili, a central Beijing neighborhood, this January. “I wanted a challenging job, and to help serve the people” Gong said, revealing her vote-winning, party-friendly strategy. Spurning the lure of higher salaries elsewhere, Gong accepted 400 yuan per month for a three-year term as the youngest committee head in the city. Gong admits she still has much to learn, but has already picked up useful tips from her six elderly staff, such as how to feel a woman’s belly to detect if she is pregnant.

Experts at Beijing’s Civil Affairs Bureau, who drafted regulations for the new elections, believe the impact will be far-reaching. “These elections help to build communities and expand basic-level democracy,” said the bureau’s Hou Ning, “just like the grassroots elections in the villages. China is becoming more democratic,” he explained, adding quickly “this is, of course, all carried out under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Since the early 1990s, Beijing has condoned the relatively free election of village committees in almost 1 million villages across China. While the party retains legal and covert means to influence the ballots as well as a parallel power structure from Beijing to every paddy field, many newly elected, non-Communist village chiefs have used the support of a popular vote to achieve significant results. Such elections are still limited to the village level, yet the experiment has raised hopes that accountability may one day extend further up to township, county, municipal and even central-government level.

With Beijing still reeling from Taiwan’s elections in March, when Chen Shui-bian broke the Nationalist Party’s monopoly on the presidency, some analysts remain more pessimistic. “As long as the one-party system remains,” said liberal academic Liu Junning, “don’t expect ‘grassroots’ elections to promote real democracy in China or overthrow the Communist Party.”

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