The false comfort of a perfectly organised election

General view shows the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 3, 2013.   | Photo Credit: AFP

It was only a little past seven on a March morning in Beijing. But by the time I arrived at the Great Hall of the People, the massive structure near Tiananmen Square where China’s leaders convene every year, a line of journalists was already snaking through the street all the way to the corner. It was a line so long that I couldn’t even see the building’s columned entrance (“Give me the name of your contractor,” Barack Obama joked to an expressionless Hu Jintao when told this edifice was built in a year).

At the front of the line was a tired-looking cameraman for Reuters, who had been waiting in sub-zero temperatures since three in the morning for the honour of being first. Such was the media interest in China’s presidential election — no matter that it was, as the Chinese State media called it without a hint of irony, a “one candidate election”.

This was an election with a foregone conclusion that had been decided six years before that spring day in Beijing in 2013, in a behind-closed-doors Communist Party Congress that had anointed Xi Jinping as Mr. Hu’s successor as Party General Secretary. The next Party Congress, in November 2012, had confirmed Mr. Xi as the Party’s next leader and as head of the Central Military Commission.

The meeting of Parliament, four months on, may have been merely to rubber-stamp Mr. Xi donning his third (and least important) crown, as President, yet it was striking that such an elaborate procedure was being followed to give the entire process the pretence of authenticity.

Covering the carefully choreographed ascension of Mr. Xi that year came to mind as I followed, this November, the long-drawn-out election in America, all the chaos (mostly thanks to an incumbent who seems to thrive on it), and, to my mind, the somewhat over-the-top hand-wringing about how the most powerful country couldn’t get its act together to smoothly choose its next leader. No matter that it had, in the middle of a pandemic, been able to ensure that more than 150 million people were able to cast their vote — not that it stopped the losing incumbent, Donald Trump, from inventing allegations of widespread fraud that did not take place and demanding a recount, claims that the U.S. courts, so far, do not appear to be taking very seriously.

Back at the Great Hall, we filed in a few minutes before the voting began, making our way to seats in the nosebleed section of the cavernous hall reserved for print media. A ballot box in bright red was placed on the stage, and one by one, the 2,956 Party-chosen delegates of the National People’s Congress marched in to cast their vote for the leader of their Party in an election that had no other candidate.

The reporters then trooped out, before being called back in for the result: 2,952 for, one against, and three abstentions. It was a victory for Mr. Xi with 99.86% of the vote. The one vote against was the biggest talking point, leading some Chinese reporters to joke if it had come from Mr. Xi himself.

There were no calls for recounts, legal challenges or other such messiness at the Great Hall (not that a legal challenge would get very far as the courts are also controlled by the Party). The inevitably messy workings of a functioning democracy might not necessarily be the worst thing, I learnt, when covering the most perfectly organised election I had ever witnessed on a cold spring morning in Beijing.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 8:00:15 AM |

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