Why You Can't Say 'I Voted!' in Chinese—at Least in China

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On election day I showed a multi-lingual "I voted!" sticker from California and mentioned the piquant fact that in 2012, the year when both China and the United States are choosing their new presidents, the phrase 我已 投 票! - "I voted!" -- can appear in America but not in mainland China.

A reader with a Chinese family name writes in:

Yep, totally with you! After casting my ballot (I'm a US citizen), I put up a photo of Chinese-language voting materials on my renren.com account, the Chinese version of Facebook. Everyone knows that Americans get to vote, but there's something truly poignant about seeing the words 選舉 in Chinese -- to know that at least in some places, people of Chinese descent can take part in democratic elections. Somehow, it seems more real when you see those words printed on official election materials, and you can imagine a different kind of world far more vividly. The dream is still alive, and one day, we will all have a voice; we will all have the right to choose how we are governed. These photos are just a tiny gesture to spark some thought.

I do love it when American democracy presents a stark contrast with the situation in China. During the presidential debates, Chinese friends currently studying in the US were curious about the debate phenomenon. We watched together in the dining halls, and they had all manner of questions about the purpose of the debates, the candidates, the format ("Who are those people in the town hall audience?"), the broadcast ("What's that blue/red trend line at the bottom of the screen?").

Think of it this way, I told one friend -- what if Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao had to get up in front of a national audience and explain their policy proposals. They couldn't just announce them as a fait accomplit, but actively elucidate and defend their policies. Why this five-year plan? Why set certain priorities? Imagine, too, if they had someone pushing back, poking holes in the fallacies of arguments, and presenting alternative ways forward. I know televised debate isn't the highest form of discourse, but at least it gives society a focal point for discussing salient issues of the day. It's an opportunity to reflect and have a national conversation about what we do or do not care about and which direction we want to go in -- something lacking in China not only because of its authoritarian decision-making structure, but because of the rapid pace of development that often shortchanges deliberation and longer-term considerations (e.g. environmental protection or cultural preservation).

Or at least, it shortchanges the opportunity for input by the many people affected by those decisions. The CCP might have a lot of back-and-forth internally (who really knows, it's a black box, right?) but if they're missing the voices of key constituencies, it doesn't matter how much they talk about it inside the Party -- important perspectives and ideas will have been ignored.

Some China-watching folks will probably try to chime in here and argue that decision-making is potentially better at the national level than at the local level, where local officials are motivated by a very problematic incentive structure. But having to walk the public through your line of reasoning is still important for getting them to understand your vision and to support it -- or in the process, realizing that it may actually be a serious mistake (which would have greater ramifications at the national level).

It also hit me last night when watching election returns: while elections are most definitely competitions, they are also exercises in engendering national unity. Obama and his campaign team pulled off one of the greatest feats of coalition-building in history, uniting over tens of millions of voters (i.e. over half the electorate, since we're a democracy) around his platform and his cause. Forging that kind of broad agreement among half the population is already a huge step forward for social cohesion. None of that consensus-building happens if you don't have plebiscites or popular participation, so while you may be able to ram projects through, you also have no guarantee of public buy-in. Maybe democracy is riskier in some sense, because as a leader, you can't just do anything you want -- but you can also rest more securely knowing that what you're moving forward will be sustained.

Apologies if this is thoroughly apparent! But given the divisiveness and bitter partisanship in American politics, sometimes I forget that winning a democratic election isn't all about conflict, where campaigns squeak into office by convincing a small set of swing voters. It's also a powerful tool for rallying national support; and in a country of 300 million people, that's damn impressive.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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