Xiaoying Zhou

In China's Elementary Schools, A Kind of Democracy

Shortly after China’s Party mouthpiece, Global Times, announced that China has long been a type of democracy, Qiao Mengke, an elementary school student from Zhengzhou, Henan province, supplied proof that democratic practice in China has reached even the nation’s youth. Sort of.

The official symbol of the Young Pioneers

Each year, elementary schools in China select representatives, called “Young Pioneers,” to help with school administration. As their official song, Song of the League of Young Pioneers, describes it, Young Pioneers are the “successors of communism,” the elementary school version of China’s Youth League members.

To get elected a Young Pioneer representative is a great honor for elementary school children. Those who do always are usually “star students” with good grades and multiple talents. Qiao Mengke, however, broke this seemingly iron rule with his recent election as the top “Young Pioneer” at his school. 

Qiao Mengke’s grades are not nearly as good as the other candidates, but he knows how to communicate. Right before the election, he printed 1,000 business cards. “Hi, my name is Qiao Mengke, please support me!” He would hand out a business card to passing students and introduce himself. His popularity finally won him the job. 

Netizens voice their doubt

Netizens on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, quickly reacted to the news.

@zhangpin_1983 evinced positive thinking: “Just saw on [China Central Television] that some elementary schools now allow students to recommend themselves and run for representatives of Young Pioneers. Many students make little cards to introduce themselves. If this spreads to every elementary school in the country, it will do much good to educate our children about civic society.”

A 2007 documentary showed the length to which children, and their parents, would go to win

While some voiced their support for the mini-election, many netizens doubt that teaching elementary students to promote themselves is really teaching them democracy. @董亚洲 asked, “Where does the money to print those business cards come from? If the cost of democracy is so high, do we still believe in it?”

It was easy for netizens to associate Qiao’s election with cadres in the real world. @hu与狼共舞 tweeted: “Government officials live in luxurious houses, drive name-brand cars, house mistresses and like to show off their privileges. For generations, kids have been unconsciously influenced by this mentality. Who doesn’t want this decadent lifestyle? Power is all that works in China. Who doesn’t want to be an official nowadays?”

@花落尘泥 was in agreeent: “Making posters, filming DVs, soliciting votes…This is the success of Chinese education! In the future these kids will go on to become officials for sure! But the people will definitely suffer more, too.”

What about the well being of these children? @Summer_-3- simply shouted out, “Please, let the kids live as kids!”

“Please Vote for Me!”

Qiao Mengke may not be aware that his election has led to all these discussions. But when one hears the twelve-year-old himself declare that he thought the election was something that “would change his whole life,” [Chinese] it’s hard to feel indifferent.

But whatever Qiao said, elections in elementary schools aren’t new to China. Released in 2007, Please Vote For Me is a documentary following the election of a class monitor election of third graders at an elementary school in Wuhan, Hubei province. (You can watch it with English subtitles here.) At the beginning, filmmakers asked two kids what “democracy” meant and what it meant to vote. Feeling shy in front of the camera, both kids shook their heads.

To teach these two terms, the teacher explained the election procedure, and presented three candidates in class. After school, parents of these three candidates took them home. At night, the drilling sessions began. In order to impress their classmates, one boy resorted to singing and got mad when his mom criticized him for bad gestures. The second boy had to practice playing the flute. The last girl, her single mother exhorting her to learn to “communicate” with her classmates, felt uncomfortable and remained silent.

Elementary school children, already on Weibo

So what do the children themselves actually think? A simple search for “representatives of Young Pioneers” on Sina Weibo leads to surprising results: Dozens of tweets from China’s elementary schoolers themselves. (Perhaps we should not be too surprised; a recent study showed that one quarter of Chinese children under seven years old are already online.)

Most kids tweeted about elections in their own schools. One girl (@黄瓜嘉怡) already won, and announced her success: “Yesterday was the election and I won, as was everyone expected of me. YES!” 

Another (@蓦然回首相爱永远, a name perhaps too mature for an elementary schooler, which literally means “an uncalculated turn of the head, an unending love”) was apparently still in the process of her campaign: “I just passed the third round of the Young Pioneer representative election! I’m No. 2, in Group B. Our slogan is: Group B elite, brave and hardworking; Group B never fails—we can fly! Support us!”

Young Pioneers, and not-so-young Pioneers

An explanation of the rank insignia for Young Pioneers

While elementary students taking to Weibo to crow about electoral victories is a new phenomenon, the Young Pioneer system is not. Almost ten years ago, I attended an elementary school in China where school-wide elections of Young Pioneers had been a tradition for years. I remember making a speech in front of the whole school, telling everyone why they had to vote for me. 

By now, many erstwhile Young Pioneers are working adults. Despite the temptation to use the word “democracy” in conjunction with the practice of voting for Young Pioneers, there’s little evidence the program has exercised much influence over Chinese people’s lives. I surely benefited from the opportunities to make public speeches as a child, but the word “democracy” means so much more than that.

While this “electoral” system may not be democratizing, its lost purity is worth defending. It is troubling to observe the extent to which today’s parents push their children to win. It is now common practice in my hometown for teachers to accept bribes from parents in exchange for minting their children a Pioneer. And as @董亚洲 pointed out, it costs a small fortune to have one thousand business cards printed.

When an honorary title requires hours of piano practices, hoaxing and scolding from parents, and more than three rounds of voting procedures, we must question what lessons China’s future leaders are really learning.


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Xiaoying Zhou

Xiaoying Zhou is a student at Yale University.