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China's legislative delegates know to 'raise our hands' in tightly scripted political theater

This is how delegates in China's highest legislature voted for president: Each was handed a ballot with one name on it: Xi Jinping. Each dropped it in a box.

No mark was required to vote for Xi, so calling it rubberstamping suggests more work than there actually was.

Any suspense about the choice of the Communist Party leadership was lifted in November, when Xi became the ruling party's general secretary. Thursday's vote by nearly 3,000 delegates for Xi's more ceremonial title of president was a mere ritual.

"Our job is to raise our hands," said Han Deyun, a lawyer from the megacity of Chongqing and one of the few National People's Congress delegates who are not from the ruling party. Delegates like him are supposed to add a veneer of democracy to the proceedings.

"We raise our hands to give them legitimacy," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

This week, in a legislative session that ends on Sunday, the Communist Party is wrapping up the country's once-a-decade power transition through what it calls election for key government posts. In reality, there's usually one candidate per slot, all candidates are trusted insiders and the results are pre-determined.

The highly choreographed congress serves a practical purpose, installing a president, a premier and other ministers who will oversee the world's second-largest economy. But some Chinese are tired of what they see as a hollow affair.

"The voting by the national delegates is completely meaningless," Chinese writer Murong Xuecun said in an interview. "If they were replaced with 3,000 machines, the result would be the same. On this matter, the free will of those deputies has been taken away."

The comments by Han and Murong Xuecun reflect a growing tendency among a minority of Chinese — especially intellectuals and often in online forums — to openly call out the contradictions in the country's political system.

"It could be a vocal minority," said David Bandurski, a researcher with Hong Kong-based China Media Project. "But still, that's important."

To be sure, many Chinese and most NPC delegates still toe the party line, as spread by a propaganda machine that touts China's election system as a true, advanced democracy, and presses the message home in textbooks and state-controlled media.

The day before Thursday's presidential election, delegate Mai Qingquan dismissed any suggestion that China's next president had already been determined.

"Nothing has been decided," said Mai, a businessman from the southern province of Guangdong. "It's like the election of (U.S. President Barack) Obama. It can only be decided after the votes are taken. No one is guaranteed."

China's Communist Party controls elections large and small, though rural Chinese have been allowed to pick their village chiefs for the past three decades. Urban Chinese vote for district legislators, all carefully vetted. Beyond that, elections are indirect.

Municipal-level legislatures select mayors and other local officials, who in turn select representatives to higher legislatures through control of their congress. At the highest level, national delegates vote on key central government positions such as president, vice president, supreme judge, premier, ministers and top military commander.

Most Chinese citizens have never seen a ballot, and no matter at which level, these legislatures rubberstamp the slate of candidates presented by the ruling Communist Party. It orchestrates the outcomes by vetting all candidates and in most cases ensuring that there is only one candidate for each position to fill.

"The simple answer is that there is always just one candidate (for every position)," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University. About 70 percent of the national deputies are party members who abide by the party's instruction when voting, and the others "just copy them," Cabestan said.

In secret balloting Thursday and Friday, delegates were spared even the effort of voting "yes" because the default choice of leaving the ballot blank counted as a "yes." They did, however, have the option of opposing a candidate by blackening a rectangular box next to the name. To abstain, they needed to fill in an oval box next to the name.

In Xi's vote tally, only one of the 2,956 delegates present voted "no," and three abstained.

In some cases, delegates needed to wield their voting pens to whittle large lists of candidates into somewhat smaller lists. For example, there were 174 candidates for the congress executive committee, but only 161 slots to fill, which went to the candidates with the fewest "no" votes.

"I felt it was very democratic," delegate Qin Chunhui said of her voting experience. "They were solemn votes that were not easily cast."

Beijing delegate Chao Ke said the lawmakers "thoroughly" debated the strengths of the candidates before taking their votes.

"The voting has fully represented the will of the people," said Chao, an anthropologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Murong Xuecun, whose real name is Hao Qun, wrote on his microblog — in a post dripping with sarcasm — that the politicians in one-candidate elections "can only get elected with impressive political credentials and amazing political wisdom."

He said that while most Chinese are able to chuckle about shady deals in the world of business, they are oblivious to, in denial of or otherwise mum about their country's political "scams."

"Appointment is called election, dictatorship is called democracy, exploitation is called benefiting, and enslaving is called serving," Murong Xuecun wrote. "What's sad is that people are not as smart as they think."

He Weifang, a law professor at China's Peking University, said it is naive to believe China holds true elections. "No one believes there's true election. Even the party itself does not believe it," He said.

Yet, the selecting of China's new leaders has once again been staged with fanfare this season in the Great Hall of the People. Delegates and the state-controlled media have all praised it.

"They have billed the system as the most advanced democracy," activist Xu Zhiyong wrote last week. "And they have turned the lie into an unparalleled, grand ceremony."

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