There are plenty of clichés about children. They are the future. They are beautiful, innocent little beings that will inherit this world. Or as Jack Handy once said, “The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face.”
And there’s something really fascinating about watching children engage in adult pursuits, to see what they do differently and what they do exactly the same – horrifyingly, the same. Forget the current reality show Kid Nation. For a look at children that also rips the lid off the flaws of the democratic process, you won’t see a program more hilarious and frightening than Please Vote For Me, this coming week’s episode of Independent Lens, the public television series that showcases independent films and videos.
Please Vote For Me is an hour-long documentary by Chinese filmmaker Weijun Chen. He was asked to contribute to the Why Democracy? project, which solicited films from all over the world with an eye toward examining contemporary democracy. Making a film on such a subject can be very dangerous in China, especially when involving adults. Then Chen heard from a friend and colleague about an election that was being held for third graders to elect a class monitor, a position previously appointed by the teacher. Please Vote For Me documents that election and captures some very familiar political techniques.
The teacher had selected the three candidates. Xiaofei is a smart, but sensitive girl. Her mother is divorced. Luo Lei is small and wiry. He was the previous class monitor and is viewed as a bully who abused his power. His father is the police chief. Cheng Cheng is physically bigger and very outgoing than the other two. His father is Weijun Chen’s friend, and works as TV producer. These kids are all eight years old.
Their school is located in Wuhan, which is about the size of London and is the most populated city in central China. The children and their parents are part of China’s new urban middle class, which only makes up about one-fifth of the population of that country, but is an influential group. Thanks to China’s One Child Policy, parents are very focused on their children’s ambitions and achievements and each of the candidate’s parents gets right to work as their campaign managers.
They push the kids to be aggressive, to be crafty. They contribute bribes, such as when Luo Lei’s father takes the class on a trip on a new monorail system. As Chinese citizens, they have little direct experience of democracy, but they clearly know what it takes to be elected.
But even though the parents start things off, most of the program focuses on the children, in the classroom and on the campaign trail. The kids figure out what works quickly. Xiaofei is clearly the candidate that’s too “nice” to be participating in politics and she’s quickly crushed. Cheng Cheng manages to intimidate Xiaofei in class and then blame it on Luo Lei. The two boys debate face-to-face and you see one trick the other into taking an untenable position. The candidates dredge up old behavior. They accuse their opponents of running nasty campaigns, while simultaneously doing the exact same thing. It’s the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest campaign you’ve ever seen – except for almost every U.S. election ever held.
Some of what we see is a product of Chinese culture. A Chinese adult’s success is mostly reflected in the achievements of his or her child. Then those children grow up and are expected to support their parents and grandparents. Clearly, the candidates in this election are pushed by their parents. But there are plenty of scenes of them in school where they’re making decisions on their own and doing what they think they need to do to win. That’s what’s funny about kids regardless of the culture in which they’re raised. Adults can push and prod them into behavior and then children will run with it. Where do adult desires end and children’s begin? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
This onscreen campaign reflects our own democratic process filtered through layers and then shot back to us from across the globe It’s unnerving how much bad behavior and ruthless campaigning feels ripped from the headlines. It’s The Little Rascals meets The Candidate. I urge you and every voting adult you know to watch this show. As another cliché puts it, “Out of the mouths of babes…”
Editor’s Note: For another look at how China’s culture filters Western ideas and ideals, see Spot-on’s Jonathan Ansfield’s report from Beijing, “Where Less is More.” To find out when Independent Lens airs in your area, check your local listings.