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President Carter's Speech at the International Symposium on Villager Self-government and the Development of Rural Society in China

Transcribed by Chen Yonggang and Cai Mei
Proofread by Yawei Liu

Thank you Vice-Minister Li Xueju and Minister Duoji Cairang who was nice enough to be our host when we first visited Tibet a number of years ago. I'm delighted to be with him again as a very old friend.

I come to this remarkable conference after almost a year of very unpleasant experiences with elections that took place in our country in Florida last November. As a result of that embarrassing event, in which no one will ever know who received the most votes I was asked to co-chair a study commission with former President Gerald Ford, a Republican, and we submitted a report to President George W. Bush early last month, recommending changes in our law that might in the future ensure that we'll not be embarrassed again. So we have some experience with elections and I'm very proud to be here at this enormous symposium attended not only by experts from China, but also by experts from a number of other countries.

It's always a great pleasure for me to come to China. The first time I came to China was probably before most of you were born. I was a young naval officer, a submarine officer. I came here to visit Hong Kong,Shanghai, and Qingdao in 1949 on a submarine. And you may know, later that year, the People's Republic of China was born, and it happened to have been born on my birthday, October 1st. Later I got to know a man who became a close friend of mine, Deng Xiaoping. He always thought that date brought Jimmy Carter and China together because we share the same birthday. So, I'm very proud to be back here again.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping and I inaugurated some very intensive negotiations between Washington and Beijing, which eventually resulted, I believe, in one of the wisest decisions, that our two governments could possibly make, that is to have full diplomatic relationship between the People's Republic of China and the United States of America. This was a very important development, and Deng Xiaoping was nice enough to visit my country the first month that we had normal relations in January 1979.

He invited me to come back to China to have a reciprocal visit. I was able to come with my wife and others in 1981. He was very proud of the changes being made in China at that time. He urged us to visit a number of rural areas of China, in which he had special interests. He had a new household responsibility system that was innovative and has led to the progress that we see today. In that system the amount of land that farmers' family could manage for his/her own benefit was more than doubled. All the rural families could have one small free enterprise; they could manufacture clay pots; they could repair bicycles; they could produce horseshoes; they could raise a few pigs or sheep. It was a first opening of a wonderful system that has now spread across China. Because of Deng Xiaoping's wisdom and that of the peoples of this country, we have seen the Gross National Product of China more than quadrupled in the brief time since those days. I was very interested in coming back to China as often as I could.

As a matter of fact, Deng Xiaoping talked to me at that time about his plans not only to increase economic freedom among the farmers to make their own decision economically, but also to initiate the opening of free elections in the small villages of China. The year after I made my 1981 visit, in 1982, the National People's Congress changed the Constitution of China to authorize the local village election system and later, in 1987 and 1988, the National People's Congress has passed the Organic Law (on Villager Committees) that set up as an option, we would say, the holding up of these village elections. Let me read to you how Deng Xiaoping looked upon this development, and I quote this great man: "The reform of the political system and the reform of the economic system should depend on and complement each other." In the final analysis, he says: "The success of all reforms depends on the reform of the political system."

In 1997, on my most recent visit to China, we were invited here by President Jiang Zemin, and given an opportunity to spend a number of days just traveling freely throughout one major rural county of China. We saw at first hand the results of the village elections and also the results after the free economic system that had been inaugurated in those villages. It was absolutely remarkable to me, as a farmer myself, to see these small villages, very similar to where our living place is in Georgia, which has 700 people in the city, work together not only as they have been elected to lead the village but also as village leaders to work to create small businesses that encompassed almost every citizen of those small villages. The remarkable thing also was the total absence that we could ascertain of any corruption, because the people who elect their officials could watch those officials and know them very well.

There were no powerful leaders who were not susceptible to election processes at the latest every three years after they were put into office. It's indeed an honor for The Carter Center to have been invited to provide technical assistance or support to achieve the goals that have been established by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which were so elegantly described by the Minister a few minutes ago. First of all, to enforce the existing laws, particularly the one that was passed in November 1998, which mandated, and not just permitted, a very extensive election system in the small villages; secondly, to increase democratic awareness not only in small villages but, I would say, also in the urban areas, as well to educate the rural voters to make sure that there was a cadre of trained election officials, to enhance community stability, and to evolve principles of governance that might someday be used in higher levels of the governance of China, and to implement the political reform that was described so elegantly by Deng Xiaoping.

The Carter Center has been charged with providing technical support in this endeavor. We have furnished the computers, for instance, in three Chinese provinces: Fujian, Hunan and Jilin Provinces. We have created a website, which is accessible to anyone in China who has access to the Internet, to describe the principles of democracy as implemented under the Organic Law (of Villager Committees) of China. We've trained election officials. We have produced pamphlets and video presentations that have been distributed to literately thousands of people. We were permitted to propose some suggestions as the National People's Congress was contemplating the passage of the 1998 Organic Law on Villager Committees.

We have also had the pleasure of inviting representatives from the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the National People's Congress to come to the United States to witness our elections. I think this has been one of the most interesting experiences for us. One thing we really hope is the Minister himself will be able to visit The Carter Center and the United States for our next election process, so they can see themselves how we do things in our country.

Our observations have been limited.

The Carter Center and the International Republic Institute have probably not had access to more than 100 villages, but we have also collected very extensive data from, I would guess, 30,000 villages, villager elections. This is out of 930,000 or so. (The most recent published number of villager committees by the Chinese government is 731,659.) So you see, it's a tiny sample that we have been able to witness, but I think that it has been, at least in three provinces, quite representative. They have been superb and I would say in Fujian and Jilin Provinces, almost a hundred percent (villages) have required secret ballots and some of them have required that every nominee to serve on the villager committees should be nominated by the citizens themselves. So the techniques that have been implemented have been indeed exciting and encouraging.

It's very important, though, for us all to understand the attitude of national leaders who are in office today. It's nice for me to quote Deng Xiaoping,who I think can be considered as the author or innovator of village elections,but let's look at what the national leaders of today say. Let me quote Chairman Li Peng, with whom I'll be meeting later this afternoon,who is one of the instigators that led the passage of the 1998 law. This is what he said after the law was passed, and I quote Chairman Li Peng: "Democracy starts with the grassroots in China because, for an ordinary villager, the person who is of direct concern to him is not the provincial governor, or the county magistrate or even the head of the township, but the chairman of the villager committee." I think it's quite significant. And let me quote also President Jiang Zemin, who said: "Expanding basic-level democracy and guaranteeing the democratic rights of the peasants are not only the most extensive realization of socialist democracy in the countryside, but the most important policy that they will return the initiative to the peasants and ensure long-term prosperity and security."

In our witnessing of the election process in the villages, we, along with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, have discovered some problems. There is a very serious lack of standardization and synchronization of elections. Even within a certain county, for instance, the elections in different villages are held at different times and there is no way really in that system for the media, news, radio, programs, television and newspapers to tell all the peasants at the same time this is a way you conduct an election with each one of them going independently. There is no coordination there.

In some villages, there has been too much domination by Party officials who have been in control for many years, or even a decade and who find it difficult to give up their prerogatives to freely elected village leaders as chosen under the 1998 Organic Law.

There has been an extensive amount of proxy voting where sometimes the head of a family still cast the ballots for all other members of the family, contradicting what the law requires, and have been using what we call roving ballot boxes,where sometimes the roving boxes are carried from one place to another around the village to encourage people to vote but also without the observation of the voters themselves, as the Minister has just described. The envisioned voting procedure is that all the voters will go and cast a ballot in the presence of everyone in the village and they would make sure that the ballots and ballot boxes were preserved entirely.

Another very serious problem, obviously which the Minister has also mentioned, is that there has never been a comprehensive national survey as to find out exactly what portion of the villagers are having or conducting elections in accordance with the Organic Law. Surveys have been somewhat superficial, increasingly effective, perhaps, but there has never been a real comprehensive survey to see what is being done. I would say that there has not been an adequate national priority to provide adequate funding and resources for this national survey to be conducted.

In concluding my remarks, let's talk about the future. I think the attendance of the foreign visitors as well as the Chinese leaders at this meeting is a very clear indication of the deep interest in the future of the direct elections in the country. We watched with great interest shortly after The Carter Center was invited to participate at the first press conference that was held by Premier Zhu Rongji. And one of the earliest questions she had was, "Do you think that the village election system will go to higher levels of the government?" Let me read you his response. He said: " I am in favor. I am in favor of democratic election for all positions, including that of the premier, my own office and the office of the president." He added that he would need to study what steps the government would take to elevate the electoral process to higher levels, which showed a proper degree of caution. Two years later, last year, he was asked the same question, "When will this be done?" and the answer was: "The sooner, the better." So you see that the Premier is at least looking into the future.

There is no doubt that this particular question is still being debated at the highest levels in China because it's a very important decision to be made: "Do we take the election process to higher levels?" Well, I have certainly never advocated that the (Chinese) premier and president be elected by direct votes. That will be outside even my casual comments. But I would hope that in the future, there would be like a five-year plan or ten-year plan to explore the possibility of taking the finest principles of the 1998 Organic Law that have worked at the village level without question and apply them to the election of all the officials at the town and township level.

This would be my own recommendation and my own hope. But we have to remember that this is the decision to be made in China, and certainly not by foreign observers who are very grateful to participate. We are here without any authority, just to give our suggestions and to give our advice. Again let me say in closing that I'm very deeply grateful for the honor that has been bestowed upon The Carter Center to be permitted to observe the remarkable, improved system in this great nation. Thank you very much.

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