China’s democracy

By John McCann

   “What is democracy?” “What is voting?” In the 2007 documentary film Please Vote for Me, a group of third grade students in Wuhan, China are asked these questions and they have no answer, only puzzled looks. In the film, the government has allowed the position of “class monitor,” basically the second in charge under the teacher, to be a democratically elected position as a social experiment. As the film begins the teacher, Mrs. Zhang, describes this process to her students by saying “You are the master of your own choice,” and remarks: “Isn’t this new?” This third grade democracy works with three candidates, selected by the teacher, running for class monitor. Each candidate has two helpers for their campaigns and candidates compete for their peers’ opinion in a talent show, a debate between two at a time, and individual speeches detailing why they should be monitor. Luo Lei, Cheng Cheng and Xu Xaiofei — the only female candidate — all employ tactics that are not totally dissimilar to those of many American politicians. The film primarily follows the lives and campaigns of the two boys, Luo Lei and Cheng Cheng. Luo Lei has been the class monitor for the past two years while Cheng Cheng and Xu Xiaofei are new contenders. Each candidate is aided a great deal by their parents, who essentially control their child’s tactics. However, the kids do have their own opinions which they express to their parents rather liberally.

   When pushed by his parents to rule the class with a heavy hand, Luo Lei replies: “I don’t want to control others, they should think for themselves.” That is not the reply most would expect from a child in Communist China. On the other hand, Cheng Cheng expresses his unsolicited opinion that he would enjoy being class monitor because he would get to boss people around. Now that’s more like it; something a young boy would say. The talent shows consist of Luo Lei and Xu Xiaofei playing the flute and Cheng Cheng singing. The class is pleased with each candidate’s performance and the hopes and desperation of securing the position of monitor grow in each candidate. Naturally, they point out their opponents faults and pit them against their strengths, much like American politicians today. The two boys encourage the rest of the class to ridicule Xu Xiaofei’s musical performance and when they do, she leaves the classroom crying. Mrs. Zhang scolds the class and many more tears are shed in remorse over the humiliation of Xu Xiaofei.

   The parents of Luo Lei and Cheng Cheng push their sons to succeed with hours of reciting speeches and preparing for debates. Cheng Cheng’s mother told him to boo Luo Lei off the stage, while Xu Xaiofei’s mother tells her to “be civilized and reasonable.” These parents take this class election very seriously. Luo Lei’s father is head of police in Wuhan and treats the whole class to a monorail ride, something very rare in central China. The role these parents have is remarkable. They tell their kids what to say in their speeches; Xu Xiaofei’s mom writes her speech for her. All of the campaigning hinges upon each candidate’s speech to the class saying why the class should elect them class monitor.

   The speeches are the climax of the film. Cheng Cheng says things like “We’re all equal” and concludes with the question “Do you support me?” and goes on to say that if they do not, then “Take pity on me” and vote for him. Each candidate pours over every detail of their speech, fine-tuning it to perfection. They all display themselves as stronger than their opposition. Luo Lei emerges as the victor and the other two candidates are reduced to tears at their loss. Xu Xiaofei’s mother consoles her daughter with the statement “The result is not so important, but the experience is.” That’s certainly not the way Americans think. Amends are made between the candidates and all returns to normal, but Cheng Cheng captures the spirit of all three candidates when he cries out at the end of his speech with “Please vote for me.”

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