I recently stumbled across a documentary with a great concept: take a class of Chinese 3rd graders, tell them that rather than the teacher picking the next class monitor, they will be voting on the choice, and give them a week to campaign. See what happens. It quickly becomes clear that while ostensibly this was conceived to explore the contrast between the CCP and Democratic styles of government, this child’s contest is nothing more than a classic power struggle, with all the delicious backstabbing, plotting, and conniving that goes along with it. Frank Underwood style.
We quickly get a cast of candidates:
Cheng Cheng – A pudgy 7-year-old boy, who can’t seem to keep his shirt on in front of the camera. Why he wants to be class monitor? “I want to boss people around.” You got to give him points for honesty. But he wants to watch TV instead of practice campaign speeches with his parents. That won’t get you far, Cheng Cheng. It seems pretty hopeless until you notice the magnetic charisma he uses to try to convince his mom. Kid’s got charm.
Luo Lei – A skinny, bright-eyed 7-year-old boy who was the past class monitor. You can’t help but admire the kid at first – he tells his parents he can win under his own strength, and when asked how he will win, responds, “I don’t want to control others, they should think for themselves. People should vote for whoever they want.” Brings tears of idealism to my eyes. But then the camera pans to his smiling parents. “You need some tricks,” his mother says. His father, the police chief, corrects her. “Techniques.”
Xu Xiaofei – A quiet 7-year-old girl. She’s got no confidence, which ultimately makes her forgettable. Oh Xiaofei, this won’t be pretty.
The first event is a talent show, where the candidates all get to show off some sort of musical ability to the voters. But true politics is won before the show begins. The lineup is uneven, Xiaofei is out of her depth, and it’s time for an early kill. Cheng Cheng meets his best friend in private before the show and confides in him. “When Xiaofei gets up there, I want you and everyone else to shout ‘You’re terrible!'” The friend eagerly agrees to rally the classroom. Cheng Cheng goes in and sits down, Xiaofei stands up, and the whole room erupts. She never stood a chance.
Xiaofei runs out into the hallway crying, and Cheng Cheng follows, knowing that she never saw him do anything. “I want to apologize on behalf of myself and Luo Lei.” Conniving bastard. They return to the classroom and Cheng Cheng grabs both his best friend and Luo Lei and pushes them up to the front of the class to apologize. The latter are both in tears, having genuinely felt like they’ve done wrong to hurt Xiaofei, and sob out apologies. Cheng Cheng stands behind them, unable to hide his smile.
The rest of the talent show plays out like you might expect it would. Xiaofei cracks under pressure and botches her flute performance, Cheng Cheng gets the class singing along with him and literally has the whole class crowding around him trying to touch him to receive ‘karma’, and Luo Lei’s supporters get into a chanting match with those of Cheng Cheng. The day ends with a decisive Cheng Cheng victory. Xiaofei is by all accounts out of the race and Luo Lei decides that he want to quit.
Until, that is, he gets home and talks with his father. Time for some techniques.
The next day, the teachers announce that they’re going on a surprise field trip to the city’s brand new monorail. “I want to spend some time getting to know you all better,” Luo Lei announces, and diplomatically decides how to tell them that the trip didn’t cost anything: “It’s my treat.” With megaphone in hand, he leads the class in song, while a bewildered Cheng Cheng can’t realize how his power trip wore off so quickly. He complains to his mother, “Luo Lei has bought off one of my assistants.” Point Luo Lei.
The voters are wising up. They’ll no longer commit to one side or the other, saying that they want to wait for the final debate to decide. And they grow stronger, not letting Cheng Cheng or Luo Lei strong-arm or bribe them into voting for them.
The final debate essentially comprises a laundry list of complaints about the other person’s leadership. Cheng Cheng’s platform? These past years, Luo Lei has hit you all a lot. I will be a manager, not a dictator, someone who will be equal to others instead of beating them. Even with his manipulative tendencies, that’s pretty compelling if you ask me. For all his faults, Cheng Cheng is a good-natured guy.
Unfortunately for Cheng Cheng, Luo Lei has a silver bullet. Earlier in the show, Cheng Cheng had promised Luo Lei that he would vote for him, out of pity. Upon hearing that, Luo Lei’s father told him, “During the debate, ask who he will vote for. If he says you, ask him how he can lead without believing in himself. And if he says himself, well, he’s a liar.” It’s the ironclad sort of logic a child loves.
During the debate, Luo Lei executes flawlessly. “Liar!” he screams, “A class monitor must be honest and you told me you’d vote for me no matter what!” When confronted about his violence, he explains, “You think it is for no reason? I must be strict with you like a parent, or else you would not learn.” Cheng Cheng pushes back with superior oration, but the damage is done and the debate is over.
It’s neck and neck going into the final speeches before the vote. Cheng Cheng gives a solid speech, Xu Xiaofei gives a bland one, and Luo Lei gives a pretty good one. But right at the end of his speech Luo Lei whips out his final technique. “Sunday is the Mid-Autumn Festival, and I want to give you all these cards as presents. Now let’s vote.” And with this eleventh-hour giving of gifts, Luo Lei, of course, wins.
So the corrupt dictator won, over the corrupt manager who didn’t. Cheng Cheng was the better candidate and will go farther in life, I feel, though Luo Lei already has the connections to jumpstart the ladder-climbing process. But mostly I was struck by how similar our adult elections are to this childish facsimile. The voters listen to their candidates through weeks of attack and counterattack that don’t go anywhere, the people watching the documentary on tv are thoroughly entertained, and in the end it’s all decided by a few unsubstantial gifts that are perfectly timed as to sway the vote at the last-minute. Makes you wonder who’s really making the decision at all.
Video: Why Democracy – Please Vote for Me (请投我一票), from Vimeo.