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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 October 2007, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
Democracy in a Chinese classroom
By Weijun Chen
Director, Please Vote For Me

Wuhan city, China
The eight-year-old children go to school in Wuhan

Thousands of years of life under a feudal system in China have fostered a culture where official power and authority have seldom been checked.

Once one has the power, then one has everything, and so the whole nation would like to be government bureaucrats.

For example, 60% of China's college graduates choose government as their ideal career.

Chinese government officials are not civil servants in the Western sense, rather they are the people who possess real power.

Against this backdrop, I decided to film a class of eight-year-old schoolchildren in my home city of Wuhan as they went through the process of electing a class monitor.

It was the first time that the post had not been the gift of the teacher and it was the children's first taste of democracy. It turned out to be a cut-throat competition.

Wrong-footing rivals

The class monitor is charged with maintaining order in the classroom when the teacher is out of the room and is expected to report any rule breaking to the teacher.

Cheng Cheng
Cheng Cheng's ultimate ambition is to be president of China
The three candidates were all thoroughly determined to win this prized position of power, and they used a variety of tactics to try to achieve their ambition.

Little Cheng Cheng was astonishing, very conniving. In fact they were all quite strategic in their campaigns.

They had to undertake several tasks to impress their classmates, such as performing a musical "turn" in front of the class, making speeches and taking part in debates where they had to point out each other's faults.

Every step of the way they were forcefully supported and guided by their parents, who behaved almost like political advisers.

Cheng Cheng, whose ultimate ambition was to be president of China, wanted to be class monitor because, he said: "You can order people around."

He was coached by his parents in speechmaking, singing, and wrong-footing his rivals.

Lone parent

Luo Lei had already been a class monitor for two years.

When asked whether he wanted the help of his parents in securing his classmates' votes, he said: "No, I will rely on my own strength.

Xu Xiaofei
Xu Xiaofei's mother said being a lone parent was a disadvantage
"I don't want to control others. People should think for themselves."

But soon his parents were helping him with techniques and tricks he could use to make himself popular with the class.

Xu Xiaofei, the only girl candidate, was reluctant at first to try to sell herself to the class, but her mother trained her to make speeches and tried very hard to build up her confidence.

But, as a lone parent, she felt she was at a disadvantage:

"I told her I couldn't help very much. She doesn't have a normal family with a father and mother. I can't help her the way Luo Lei's parents help him."

It is also important to understand that China's Family Plan policy of "one couple, one child" has led to a situation where children find there is too much hope from parents and grandparents pressing on their weak shoulders.

Personally, I do not think we have prepared people properly in how to be parents with only one child. It is a big problem.

Democracy in action

Every child or "small sun" has his parents caring for him and influencing him. His family all expect him to be a success in society, even though he is so young.

There is no world of childhood in China.

BBC POLL: WHY DEMOCRACY?
Twelve thousand people in 15 countries were polled in August
58% thought terrorism could destroy democracy
62% thought voting in national elections was very important
57% thought the US political system better equipped than China's to tackle climate change
14% said they would be very unlikely to support the idea of a global parliament
Research by Synovate

Luo Lei's parents were able to help his campaign by taking the class for a trip on the modern monorail system - which is managed by his father's police department - and by giving him gifts to hand out after his final speech.

But the "small suns" also had some tricks of their own.

Cheng Cheng ensured that his classmates shouted down Xu Xiaofei before she had even started to speak, and she found it difficult to recover.

The next day he told her it had all been Luo Lei's doing, and then proceeded to boo Luo-Lei off the stage.

Later, in a debate in front of the class, he accused him of being a dictator who had beaten his classmates while he had been child monitor.

Luo Lei
Luo Lei was elected by classmates in a secret ballot
Luo Lei replied that even parents beat their children and added: "Do you think it's for no reason? It's because they did something wrong. If my method is wrong, I'll change it."

In the end, although the class agreed that Luo Lei had been very strict with them, they elected him in a secret ballot.

I believe the children's joy and sorrow throughout the election, their winning and losing, truly reflect the tough yet hopeful democratisation process in China.

Please Vote For Me is part of the BBC's Why Democracy? season and will be broadcast on Sunday 7 October at 2000 BST on BBC Four.



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