Every three years the residents of a small Chinese village near the Siberian border with Russia in Heilongjiang province gather to democratically elect a new head — the person in charge of governing all village affairs.
Contenders for this position openly campaign for votes. On Election Day, each eligible resident — defined as any man or woman above 18 with a local household registration — casts their vote for chairman. Each person is allowed only one ticket, and only one voter at a time may drop their ballot into the box. To win, a candidate must receive at least half the total votes cast.
But in the winter of 2014, the election in this small border village was stymied. This year, it wasn’t the customary deep Siberian snow that was delaying things, but the fact that even after two rounds of voting, a clear victor still hadn’t been produced.
None of the three candidates running for office had received a majority. Those in charge of the community had become solicitous, not only because of their worry for what would happen to the village, but also because a system they had always relied on was breaking down in front of their very eyes. The village was going under and desperately needed resuscitating.
To understand how the small hamlet ended up in such a predicament, we must first return to the time of the fall primaries, when a red banner hanging at the village gate auspiciously announced the coming of election season.
After the year’s harvest had all been sold off and everyone was settling in for winter, the locals were treated to nonstop banquets hosted by each of the three candidates running for office. For the two weeks before Election Day, the only meal any of the villagers ate at home was breakfast, while the candidates kept up an ongoing banquet in the local hall.
At each feast, residents would eat, listen to speeches, and drink, before returning home to ponder who to elect. They were sometimes followed by the candidates, who offered a 200 to 500 yuan ($30 to $75) voting “incentive.”
The choice was a difficult one to make. All three candidates — Zhang, Wang and Chan — had their own strengths.
Zhang was known as an aggressive and ambitious man. To try and secure a victory he had borrowed money from many people around him. He spent lavishly in an attempt to secure votes and was heavily invested in this election. People often whispered in the village that Zhang would do whatever it took to become leader, even if it meant getting his hands dirty.
The second candidate, Wang, was plucked from a prodigious family tree. He was well-connected; his deep roots stretched far, and there were many friends around who could, and would, help him. With this advantage, Wang didn’t need to spend nearly as extravagantly as Zhang for votes.
Chan was the final prospect. A proponent of justice, Chan had represented the village many times when locals had felt policies from the upper levels of government had slighted them. Not to be deterred by a loss, he announced that he would continue on with fighting in the village’s interests even if he wasn’t elected chairman.
When Election Day finally came, each candidate gained nearly the same number of votes. One week later a second ballot was cast, but little had changed in the tally. The supporters were frustrated, the candidates outraged. Despite the harshness of the winter that year, the village had become an active volcano, threatening to erupt at a moment’s notice. The local party committee met with great haste to try and quell the blaze.
Who should be the next chairman? Should it be Zhang the Ambitious, Wang the Influential, or Chan the Just? Should it be none of them?
With their backs to the wall, the committee came up with a fifth option: all of the above. The triennial term was split into three single-year sessions. Each candidate would be chairman for 12 months, and would hand over his post to the successor at the year’s end. Most importantly, the two men not leading had to pledge they would cooperate with the sitting chairman to ensure stability in the village.
The post is currently held by Wang — Zhang held the post for the 2015 calendar year. Chan is up next, and it won’t be until winter 2017 that the village will have to face another election.
Things are going well, but it’s hard to achieve much in one-year terms. If fortune shines on the small hamlet, the revolving door of leadership will finally close, and one candidate will establish himself as leader.
This article was co-authored by Huang Haisu.
(Header image: A villager writes on a ballot in a voting booth in Wenling, Zhejiang province, Dec. 17, 2013. Zhou Xuejun/VCG)