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I recently viewed a fascinating Chinese documentary, “Please Vote for Me” (available on Netflix, click here to watch instantly). This documentary’s true story aroused my thinking about democracy, competitiveness, values and culture in modern China.
Filmed in a real school and in the homes of several students, it takes place when several kids in a class of third graders (10 year-olds) are vying to be chosen as ‘class leader’. Their parents seem to be far more involved than ours would ever be, even while allowing competitive behavior that at first seems extreme; but the parental processes turn out to be at least reasonably democratic, despite challenging moments when the parents virtually insist that their child succeed.
The candidate kids invent various clever tactics with the help of their assistants in class, and they find ways to manipulate their classmate voters (and their competitors as well). This helps and hurts them; for me, the hurt was the dark side of the process, even while the entire class stayed involved and finally accepted the results graciously.
All the children of Evergreen Primary School’s third grade class actually learned new life lessons through the school’s ‘election’ experiment, while the candidates were taught to be strong, persistent and to not give up while trying to meet goals. I could hardly believe that the supportive students were really learning about democratic voting processes, willingly exercising their right to vote for their favored class monitor even at their young age!
Throughout the film we watch the candidates at home, sometimes even arguing strategy with their domineering parents! speeches were prepared and rehearsed, addressing articulately why they should be elected and why their opponent was too unfit or weak to fulfill the job. Debates were held during class, allowing the three contenders to point out each other’s flaws in front of the entire class!
Many Americans would find the parental ‘guidance’ for ten year-olds to be inappropriate, but I surmise that such is simply the Chinese culture, which actually seems somewhat logical, if aggressive. The students actually roll with the punches, albeit through the entire process their parents become more and more involved.
In the end one of the smaller boys was actually elected, and he soon showered the entire class with gifts provided by his father. As I was looking for upside, he entire class of nine and ten year olds actually developed views of democracy while learning to deal with victory or defeat, with an additional plus: appreciating the need to be tough! They were learning to deal with world realities, despite their youth. Q.E.D.?
Interestingly the fathers were more involved than the mothers, while conventional wisdom has been that the mother stays home while often domineering. We know that American parents tend to operate at the other end of the discipline spectrum, perhaps hoping but not actively pushing their kids towards academic success while simultaneously supporting a wide variety of what we might call ‘freedoms’ which may have little to do with any responsible definition of excellence. Of course there are trade-offs and perhaps middle roads which while followed could take decades to change our fundamental national habits meaningfully…. but our own government’s mindset seems oblivious to these issues.
The documentary “Please Vote for Me” is a film that follows three Chinese third grade students as they run for the position of class monitor at Evergreen Primary School. Growing up in China, it is evident that these children have no prior experience with democracy and at the beginning of the film, none of the students even knew what democracy meant. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that this elementary school election serves as an experiment in democracy that reflects the issues that come up in today’s American democratic elections.
The student selected to serve as class monitor had responsibilities such as controlling their peers, managing the class, and was granted the power to punish those who were disobedient. While the position of class monitor had been appointed by the teacher in the past, she decided to choose three students as candidates and give the class the power to choose who they wanted to serve as class monitor.
One candidate, Luo Lei, was a boy who had served as the class monitor for the past two years. As the current class monitor, Luo Lei used harsh punishments in order to keep the class in line. Surprisingly, Luo Lei actually likes the idea of a democratic election and believes that the students should, in fact, be able to chose who they want to serve as class monitor. This is surprising in that although he risks losing his power as class monitor, he still believes this new concept of a democratic election. Another candidate, Cheng Cheng, is a fairly popular boy who is clearly interested in the position for the power that it grants over the other students. Although it is evident that Cheng Cheng wants the position solely due to the power that it would give him, Cheng Cheng politically strategizes to win over the vote of his classmates. The final candidate, Xu Xiafei, is a girl who is much quieter than her male competitors.
The campaign lasted a few days and each candidate was required to participate in three events: a talent show, a debate, and a speech. During the talent show, the candidates were able to either sing a song or play a musical instrument. Xu Xiafei and the other girls of the class began to cry after the boys of the class (as led by Cheng Cheng) booed Xu Xiafei’s performance. Although the teacher made Cheng Cheng apologize, this did not stop him from bringing up her tears during the debate by stating that it was a sign of weakness that would not be compatible with the emotional stability required by the position. While one of the purposes of debates in to question the flaws of one’s opponents, it is clear that Cheng Cheng manipulated the citation that he caused at the talent show in order to make Xu Xiafei look weak as an opponent. Both Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei carried on these dirty tactics throughout the election.
The film also goes beyond the class room and documents the role that the candidates’ parents played in the election. The parents, wanting their child to win, not only coach their children throughout the campaign, but also encourage their dirty political tactics and place further pressure and stress on their children for their success. Luo Lei, who valued the idea of democracy at the beginning, felt the pressure of the campaign after the class seemed to favor Cheng Cheng and allowed his father, the police chief, to take the class on a field trip to the monorail. After the class is once again won over by Cheng Cheng’s charisma during the debate, Luo Lei accepts further help from his father to buy the votes of his fellow students and hands out festival cards to the class. This final maneuver is ultimately what wins Luo Lei the election proving the power that funds and advisors hold in democratic elections.
Throughout the documentary, the introduction of democracy into this third grade classroom reflects the real life struggles of American political campaigns. Many issues that Xu Xiafei faced during her campaign mirror those of American women who enter the political arena. The attack on Xu’s display of emotion has been seen time and time again on female politicians where as males are never questioned on their “emotional stability.” Luo Lei’s victory shows the sad reality of how big of a role funds play in campaigns. While Cheng Cheng was more charismatic and popular amongst his peers, Luo Lei was ultimately able to buy the votes of his fellow classmates. Luo Lei’s win also highlights the power of incumbency during democratic elections. All of the issues that were raised during this documentary illustrate major flaws in democratic elections and the persuasion that can occur when voters are not educated about candidates and issues.