November 11, 2008 / 1:44 PM / 10 years ago

Chinese students vote in rare democracy experiment

GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - The leafy campus of a south Chinese university is holding a rare democratic vote, with the contest for student president igniting hopes that this one-party state may be testing the waters with Western-style student democracy.

A student casts his vote for the election of the student union presidency at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong province November 11, 2008. The leafy campus of the south Chinese university is holding a rare democratic vote, with the contest for student president igniting hopes that even this one-party state is not immune to the pull of Barack Obama's win. REUTERS/Joe Tan

Four student candidates in Guangzhou’s prestigious Sun Yat-sen University have been running campaigns and rallies in a burst of officially-sanctioned democracy unusual for this country run by a Communist Party wary of challengers.

Students strolling or cycling about the campus’ red-brick faculties, freshly-mown lawns and shady avenues of old Banyan and Camphor trees have been fired up by the vote, coming so soon after Barack Obama’s triumph in the U.S. presidential race.

The student elections took place on Tuesday.

Chen Xia, one of the four candidates contesting the student union presidency, wrote on her campaign blog: “This direct election is a democratic progress experiment. Along with everyone else, I feel fortunate to be able to become a pioneer.”

Business-driven Guangdong has become a focus of Chinese calls for greater political relaxation and, 30 years after the country launched economic reforms, for new reforms to give citizens more say in government.

The campus election appears to be another step to establish the province as a trial ground for such efforts.

“There have been such student elections in the past including at Peking University but they are rare. This is significant in its exploration of a political topic, a feeling out of the limits,” said Johnny Lau, a veteran China watcher in Hong Kong.

Lau said such experiments should be seen more as “flower vases” displayed to gauge public responses, rather than indicative of any deeper shift in official policy or thinking.

However, in the absence of voting rights in China, even the gesture of allowing democracy to germinate at a top university is a bold step.

The Communist Party’s decision-making Politburo is unlikely to have forgotten 1989, when it faced one of the stiffest challenges to its one-party rule as students flooded onto Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to agitate for democracy.

“It’s a good thing, because we can now choose a representative who will speak up for us to a certain degree, not like before,” said Wu Yuanzhong, a third-year biology student and one of 31,000 undergraduates eligible to vote.


While the student poll initially attracted a welcome flurry of media attention, university authorities are now flustered.

“The students’ lives and studies have been greatly disturbed, so in order to protect the students they will not now be accepting any interviews,” a woman surnamed Wang at the university’s publicity department told Reuters.

The Guangzhou Daily earlier reported that the school had imposed a “muzzle order” while quoting a teacher and students as saying the attention had brought great pressure.

Anthropology student Qin Lei, 21, seen grinning on large campaign posters hung throughout the campus in a green T-shirt with the words “You win some, you lose some,” pledges in his platform to “push for reform and protect student interests.”

“It’s a new road for students to elect a president, it can help make the student body more lively,” said Qin, who agreed to speak with Reuters despite the muzzle order.

“It’s not a bad experiment ... to try to do something new,” said Qin, who said he was a Communist Party member along with three of the four other candidates who were chosen by a student union committee for their academic and campus achievements.

The university has stumped up 2,500 yuan for each candidate to fund their campaigns, which have included posters, leaflets, blogs and debates, some carried live online, promising to fix longstanding gripes like fickle hot water supplies in dormitories and poor-quality canteen food.

In a city where newspapers like the populist Southern Metropolis Daily recently devoted nearly a dozen pages of coverage to Obama’s victory in the U.S. elections, some said the student election was something to be encouraged.

“On a campus there are purer ideals than society,” said a 43-year-old accountant surnamed Wang. “There is a sense of justice, righteousness and equality that society lacks.”


A survey of political attitudes in Guangdong published late last year found the widest enthusiasm for democratic reforms among “intellectuals” — the highly educated. Asked whether political democracy was unimportant as long as the economy grew, 52 percent of these respondents disagreed.

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But some students were fairly indifferent to it all.

“I’m not so interested in the U.S. elections,” said He Jiankun, a bespectacled philosophy student as he hurried to morning class carrying a snack of two boiled eggs.

“I’m just not so interested in politics.”

Editing by Chris Buckley and Valerie Lee

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