“Voting as a Rite: A History of Elections in Modern China” by Joshua Hill


For those who wring their hands over unpredictable voting results—for a nation’s president or a potential split from a political and economic union—the fixed expectations of Chinese elections may be oddly calming. Joshua Hill’s new book, Voting as a Rite: A History of Elections in Modern China, offers a tour of Chinese elections going back over a century, arguing that influential policy makers have favored the notion that voters should be unencumbered by real choices and, armed with an understanding of their political station, essentially head to polls in a “rite” that serves the state’s interests.

This “intellectual history”, Hill says, differs from prior scholarship in two key ways. He links concepts that connect elections over time, instead of treating them as “discrete events”, and he shapes his argument through liberal use of now-searchable digitized sources. This approach has helped produce a detailed, occasionally dense, sometimes colorful narrative that traces Chinese officials’ goals for elections.


Voting as a Rite: A History of Elections in Modern China, Joshua Hill (Harvard University Press, March 2019)
Voting as a Rite: A History of Elections in Modern China, Joshua Hill (Harvard University Press, March 2019)

Structuring Hill’s particular argument has its challenges, among them to ensure that readers can follow it. To help his cause, Hill ends each chapter with its own conclusion—to sum up where the reader has been and to point them towards the next stop. While this is helpful, some chapters may have benefitted from having that sort of synthesized information up front, in order to map out the argument before Hill builds it up.

Hill explains that divergent thoughts on elections emerged in writings between the 1840s and 1890s. One vision was idealistic, believing that voting by millions of lower-level civil service exam degree holders was a “solution to dynastic weakness.” A more pessimistic camp worried about the “petty, divisive nature of elections and the propensity of elections to elevate private interests over the public good.” There was even more basic work to be done though, like the inventing of language: Only in 1909—the year after China’s first election laws were passed—did the term in use today, xuanju (“select and appoint”), become standard to mean “election”.

As dynastic power crumbled, civil service exams ended in 1905, forcing officials to create a new “appointment” method to familiar effect—to elevate the “talented and worthy” to state posts. Policy makers sympathetic to Qing rule, who were the main designers of China’s first election regulations, had predetermined goals for voting. They hoped that votes cast by the best and brightest would preserve the ties between elite families and the central imperial state while discouraging ideological battles. Hill writes:


Elections were to be a tool for unity and state-building; they were not meant to resolve conflicts within the elite or apportion power between different interest groups. The designers of the 1908 regulations, much like those who influenced them, did not accept factional competition as natural, legitimate, or unavoidable.


Officials felt that elected bodies should “harmonize, regularize, and strengthen the communications between rulers and those they ruled”—surely music to the ears of Empress Dowager Cixi, who spent her final years fretting over the prospects for a constitutional monarchy. As Hill reminds us, Mao Zedong cared little for formal procedures, including elections, but he may not have minded one that guaranteed victory for the guy already in charge—the same sign of “harmony” the empress dowager had craved long before him.


Hill animates the text with often scathing, and entertaining, editorial insights and satirical illustrations about election woes which were published in Shanghai-based newspapers and elsewhere in the early 1900s. Many works were printed anonymously, but papers also ran writing attributed to major intellectuals, like Liang Qichao, who believed that voting could channel the “will of the people” and help jumpstart democracy. Journalistic genres like “timely commentaries” (shiping) critiqued elections, including for provincial legislators in Jiangsu in 1909 and a republic-wide election three years later. A newspaper editor decried election campaigning, a common target of critics:


Those influenced by campaigning are like blind men riding sightless horses. Out of a hundred of them, not even a single person understands what sort of thing an election is, or what it means to vote or to be elected. It only takes a single word from a campaigner and the crowd falls into line behind him.


Of the 1909 elections in Jiangsu, one editorialist wrote that even “mute orphans who sell fried-dough snacks” were registering to vote, and the writer Bao Tianxiao satirized the difference between official plans for elections versus the results:


The provincial assembly election is… like a melon: before it’s cut open, everyone wants to taste its sweet, sweet flesh; once it’s sliced with a knife, though, [we find that the] insides are all rotten.


Being eligible to vote held cachet in China, since it both reflected and conferred status—educational, professional, and even moral—while marginalized segments of society (opium-users, queue-wearers, merchants, and women, among others) were often blocked from voting rolls. The perceived value of voting wrought chaos that tainted early elections, which were plagued by massive fraud around voter registration and balloting; if people hadn’t viewed voting as precious, there would have been little reason for such duplicity and mayhem. Dispassion also would have been less lethal. Hill tells of a polling station manager who hanged himself after being threatened for refusing to accept fraudulent ballots in an election in Jiangsu.

Flawed elections in the 1910s and early 1920s convinced some that voters simply weren’t capable of selecting the “talented and virtuous.” To address this, election laws were drawn up to remove competition, which many felt undermined a pure aim of voting—to be a “vehicle for public education and enlightenment.” From the 1920s, the Nationalists and then the Chinese Communist Party set up electoral “races” to yield predetermined results, and emphasized that:


voting should be an educational ritual aimed to teach citizens about the state, with the belief that this pedagogical purpose could only be achieved by suppressing campaigning and other forms of electoral competition.


Party officials, keen to reduce accusations of fraud, instead manipulated elections in both subtle and overt ways, guiding voter choice by approving only a narrow list of candidates or explicitly telling voters whose names to fill out on ballots. Hill maintains that the more things changed in China, the more they were static, saying that the late Qing constitutionalists and the Party cadres who pushed for village committee elections in the 1980s shared the common belief that elections were “a way to enhance the government’s power and efficacy.”

Speaking of power, the CCP is the only party legally allowed in the mainland, a far cry from the over 300 that Hill notes sprouted up in 1912, their prohibition having ended with the fall of the Qing. Today, election results for village committees and local people’s congresses in China hold no surprises that truly threaten the Party, and at the top, President Xi Jinping has been constitutionally christened “president for life”. Of that historical moment, China’s first election framers may have said the current system worked perfectly: state-approved elites cast votes in a ritual of “harmony” devoid of (outwardly) contentious campaigns and discomforting choices, predictably choosing to keep in place the nation’s head.


Hill writes virtually nothing on democracy as a dynamic around elections in China. This is not an omission; as he notes, a traditional reliance on hierarchy there, as in other Asian countries, has sometimes meant the state has taken an outsized role in “providing” for the people, who have tended to have little say, at least politically, in what’s being provided.

Hill closes by asking for what new purposes might the Chinese government someday utilize the “rite” to vote. This is difficult to forecast, but the model of Taiwan inspires a response: ultimately, authoritarianism on the island withered, martial law went away, and free competitive elections through popular voting were held.

Referencing scholar Hu Shi, an advocate of “learning through experience,” including with elections, Hill underlines a natural progression of things, stating, “once you give someone the right to vote, a day will come when that person will want their vote to count for something.” This is a reality, and maybe a warning, for the Party to heed.

Martin Witte is an activist, writer, editor and translator.