What is a Democracy?: Steven Riep on “Please Vote for Me”

PROVO, Utah (March 29, 2016)—Democracy is a concept usually associated with the American political system, where voting is a common practice. But what happens when Chinese schoolchildren implement the idea of democracy?

This question is the basis of the 2007 Chinese documentary Please Vote for Me, directed by Weijun Chen. At the beginning of the film, children are asked “What is democracy?” and “What does it mean to vote?” These questions are met with confusion from the children, who do not understand the words. According to Professor Steven Riep of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, the political environment and background of China can help a viewer of this documentary understand not only Chinese culture and politics, but democracy as an implemented concept.

"Please Vote for Me" (2007) is a Chinese documentary directed by Weijun Chen.

“Please Vote for Me” (2007) is a Chinese documentary directed by Weijun Chen.

Riep began by explaining the Chinese political system. “China is not a country known for free elections,” he said. From an outsider perspective, Chinese government seems to be exclusively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Though this is true on the national level, democratic elections have been held on exclusively the village level to determine leadership since 1998. Candidates are chosen, campaign and are elected. But this is a rare occurrence in China. “The concept of Please Vote for Me is a completely novel and new concept, something that most people don’t know anything about,” Riep said.

The documentary follows the experiment of implementing democracy in a third grade Chinese classroom. The juxtaposition of this new idea of democracy and the communist government the children are familiar with is what Riep says bring the questions to the forefront. Three children are chosen to campaign for class monitor, a position that is usually assigned. Through a talent show, debates and speeches, the three children – Luo  Lei, the current class monitor; Cheng Cheng; and Xu Xiaofei – vie for their classmates’ votes.

Riep next drew connections between the children’s culture and their class’s democratic process. He explained how the influence of China’s one-child policy means that each child receives exclusive attention from his or her parents. In the film, parents put all of their efforts into the campaign, including writing speeches and, in Luo Lei’s case, arranging for the class to take a field trip to win their child votes.

Riep explained that a “shame society” also influences how the parents motivate their children. In a group society, he said, the shame of having disappointed the group is as strong as guilt is in an individualistic culture. Riep pointed out that this often leads Chinese children to become what he called “little emperors and empresses” who have discovered the power they can hold over their parents

Riep urged the audience to pay attention to the children’s techniques. He especially called attention to the name calling, broken promises and bribery that are prevalent in the film. Personal attacks and pointing out faults is common in this third grade election, as are smear tactics. “Going behind people’s backs and spreading gossip that they’re a ‘slow eater’ – for some reason being a slow eater seems to be a crime here,” Riep said with a smile.

As he concluded his presentation, Riep encouraged the audience to ask themselves what this film can tell us about democracy and politics in America: Are they much different than the democratic process in a Chinese third grade classroom? “You’ll have to decide if this is unique to a third grade Chinese classroom,” Riep said.

—Alison Siggard (B.A. English Education ’17)

Alison covers the Department of Asian and Near Eastern languages for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.