Please Vote for Me
I recently watched Please Vote for Me. It is a documentary about a Chinese third-grade class that is given the unprecedented privilege of electing their own class monitors.
The film is set in the city of Wuhan. I spent a wonderful year teaching English (or at least Southern English) in Hubei Province, just up the train line from Wuhan. That experience gave me an appreciation for the magnitude of the election. I know the stakes: I have seen the power wielded by the class monitor. He is the classroom equivalent of the old Soviet politburo; his authority over his peers is almost absolute.
The election process involves skits, song-and-dance routines, and a healthy dose of crying. For that reason alone, it is worth watching. Please Vote for Me is a touching story. It is political drama that would make DC proud. Support is bought and sold. Assistants change sides. There are lies, betrayal, and bribery; parents even arrange field trips for their student's class in order to win votes. The children take one another to task for eating too slowly, being picky, and not paying sufficient attention in class. It is high political theater, and amazing given the political situation to which they have been exposed. But it is more than that.
Most striking is some of the dialogue between the candidates and their parents in the lead-up to the election. They speak truths about the nature of freedom and liberty that are all but forgotten in Free America.They grasp the idea of liberty as something inborn, while we seem content to let ours be taken, incrementally, by regulation and legislation.
The teacher writes the word "democracy" on the board. She says "Democracy. Isn't this new? You will choose your own monitors."
One of the candidates, Cheng Cheng, gets home and asks his father, "What kind of thing is democracy?" His father's response is concise, but powerful: "Democracy is when people are their own masters."
Next, another child, Luo Lei, is shown describing the election process to his parents. They are both police officers, and not surprisingly, they attempt to brainstorm for ways to coerce the other classmates into voting for him. The father says, "You must have a trick." Luo is adamant in rejecting such help. His father says, "You need some tricks to let you win." Luo responds with "No! I don't want to control others. I think they should think for themselves."
I had to watch that part twice. It speaks to something incredible about our nature. We are built for liberty. These children, who in their totalitarian country have no training or education by which to even identify the democratic process or the value of freedom, recognize its essence instinctively. It is to be free to make up our own minds — to choose for ourselves what we will do and who we will be.
The second lesson I took from this film is the allure of corruption — the corruption that feeds on power. As the election approaches, the children's civility breaks down and they explore bribery and scandal to win votes.
But I was greatly encouraged by this film. It seems like we see our rights threatened every day. All that "shall not be infringed" is infringed upon constantly. Our government takes what it wants, and speech is increasingly less free. As government continues to seize civil liberties, we witness the death throes of the republic. America would do well to remember the two truths found in this film:
- Democracy is when people rule themselves. Not "the people," but individuals.
- Being an elected official does not grant the right to control others; we all retain the right to manage our own affairs.
As we see the erosion of every kind of liberty justified on the basis of disasters, crises, and naked governmental power grabs, may we never lose sight of the lessons I learned from an eight-year-old in Communist China: No matter what they try to take, we exist to be free. Freedom is within us. And freedom obligates us to think for ourselves and stand up for ourselves. May we always stand for truth, even when it hurts.