Curious about whether or not democracy would work in China? Why not test it out on Chinese children?! In the documentary “Please Vote for Me”, a real election in staged with third graders at a Chinese primary school.
I originally watched “Please Vote for Me” in my undergraduate Chinese Culture through Film class. The whole class was roaring with laughter throughout the film, especially those of us who had been to China. I recently watched the documentary again today and I found it even more hilarious after having taught English at a primary school for almost a year. Anyone who is interested in the Chinese education system, Chinese home life culture, or democracy in China should definitely check this documentary out (it’s on Netflix!).
This documentary, based at a primary school in Wuhan, China, follows a third grade class holding its first democratic election for class monitor. Class monitors are found in every Chinese classroom from primary school through college. Class monitors aid the teacher, enforce rules and even discipline other students. Typically the class monitor is chosen by the home room teacher, but for the purpose of this documentary, one class at Evergreen Primary School held an election. This election is reported to be the first ever class monitor election in China.
The documentary follows three students who are chosen by their teacher to run: Luo Lei, Xu Xiaofei, and Chung Chung. Luo Lei, the current class monitor, is an athletic, opinionated boy who is known for “beating his classmates”. Xiaofei, on the other hand, is a sweet and sensitive girl, later labeled a “crybaby”. Finally, Chung Chung is an extremely charismatic, chubby troublemaker who laughs maniacally when he gets his way, and cries when he thinks he will lose.
The cameras document the detailed political conversations these 3rd grades have with one another, and even follow the students home to show the interactions they have with their families. The camera follows Luo Lei’s father offering to buy off the class with a free field trip, Chung Chung’s mother heckling him as he performs speeches in his underwear and Xiaofei’s mother lamenting that her daughter doesn’t have a chance to win because she comes from a single-parent household.
This film is part of the Why Democracy Series and was aired in 35 countries including the BBC and PBS networks.
Check out a video from the NY Times for a little taste of the documentary
While democracy can be corrupt anywhere, it is interesting to see it so blatantly expressed and encouraged. School elections in America often have strict rules: no offering presents for votes and definitely no heckling or bullying candidates! However this election is much more similar to many democratic elections in the real world today. The children make false promises to one another, hold each other accountable for past actions and point out flaws in one another’s character (which the teacher allows). They also have debates where they are allowed to scream at and demean one another while the other students interject their own opinions (once again, with no intervention from the teacher).
I think the intensity of this election is very representative of Chinese culture. “Didn’t you want to be like President Hu Jintao?”, Chung Chung’s mother asks, “This is your first step”. The parents are extremely involved in the election. They write speeches for their children, prepare them for debate topics, help them learn to defend their character, and force them to practice their “talent” for hours on end. The parents even encourage their children to heckle one another with names and bribe each other with gifts. The only reasonable parent seems to be Xiaofei’s mother, who believes she can’t be overly involved in the election because Xiaofei must learn to be self-sufficient.
Throughout the film you wonder: “Will they make the right choice?”. Will they pick the person who will best support them, or will they be bribed with gifts or swayed by charisma?
In the end I’m left thinking: what does their choice say about Chinese culture and democracy as a whole? Would it have been better to let the teacher decide? I’m not quite so sure these children learned anything besides the corrupt nature of democracy. But on the other hand, they may be better behaved towards the new class monitor because, after all, it was their choice.
If you’re at all interested in Chinese culture, teaching English in China, or international political culture, “Please Vote for Me” is a great documentary to watch. Just be prepared for a lot of laughs (and a lot of subtitles).
If you don’t have a Netflix account you can also find the entire film on Youtube, with somewhat lesser visual and sound quality.
Have you seen this documentary? What do you think?
*Featured image from huskyherald.com
10 comments on ““Please Vote for Me”: Democracy in China”
I remember watching this film a couple of years back on the BBC. I’d never been to China at that point but really enjoyed it!
Yeah it’s definitely one of my favorite documentaries! It’s crazy how politically sophisticated children can be
This sounds really interesting, going to have to bookmark it to watch later. Thanks for sharing :)
No problem Catherine! I think it’s a great documentary about the aspects of Chinese culture you don’t normally see when traveling through.
It sounds really interesting! I studied International Affairs in college so this is right up my alley. I’ll make sure to check it out sometime!
Hi Hannah! I also studied International Affairs in college too. I think this is a great documentary for IAFF majors.
I just watched this film and by the end was convinced Cheng Cheng deserved to win, despite his early conniving. I was very surprised at the lopsided result and found the closing scenes a little ominous.
I am also curious about where life has led these children, who should be about 17 now. Do you know of any updates on them?
I actually haven’t heard anything about them since, but you’ve made me curious! The ending definitely made me feel a little uneasy, how Luo Lei was able to bribe his classmates into voting for him. I found it even worse that the parents and teachers allowed it. Although to be honest, in the USA we love to promote democracy, but there is a lot of bribery and money exchanged in real life politics.
Yeah, I was amazed at the two obvious bribes, too. It’s interesting that both of Luo Lei’s parents were in the police, and that his father was chief (?) of police, and was the one orchestrating the “generosity” to his classmates.
I was really put off initially by Cheng Cheng’s dirty tricks, but later came to see him as such a good debater and so ambitious and energetic that I came to pull for him. He really tried hard to be a successful candidate, and I would be very interested to know what he’s doing now. Xiaofei, unfortunately, just didn’t come off as a strong presence or a viable candidate. I felt very bad for both Cheng Cheng and Xiaofei’s disappointment at the end.
I don’t watch reality shows in general, but I was also surprised at how much access the filmmakers had to the parent-child interactions in their homes (especially for the boys).
I was also surprised to learn that Luo Lei had been the class monitor for two years already (since he was six??!) In the end, I wonder whether the kids voted for him because of those bribes, or because they were just more comfortable staying with the status quo, or because they really thought his “strict” model was what a class monitor should be, or perhaps because there was some, unseen to us, pressure from adults to choose him.
Yeah I think it will be hard to ever know exactly why the kids chose him. I think it was largely the bribes from Luo Lei that made them pick him. If you think about it, this is very representative of a lot of democracies. What can the candidate give me? Lower taxes, healthcare, better social services..? Candidates bribe you with promises they may or may not fulfill. Lou Lei made the children feel like they’d have a great time with him as class monitor, when in reality, all the gifts probably stopped right after the election.