by Jacob Stubbe Østergaard
So we’re all under lockdown because of the pandemic. What’s this a perfect time for?
That’s one thing even a pandemic can’t prevent us from doing.
What I would like you all to ponder with me to day is:
What if China had an electoral college?
What would it look like if China had a two-party system like the USA and had presidential elections with each of the 32 provinces* choosing a number of electors proportional to their population? What would the map look like? What would be China’s red provinces? What would be its blue provinces? Which would be the coveted “swing provinces” where the candidates would expend most of their campaign efforts?
China has continually stated that they do not wish to adopt any such Western system of governance, and even the US itself has long been debating whether or not to abolish the electoral college in favor of direct elections. But that shall not prevent us from carrying out this thought experiment. That’s the cool thing about thought experiments.
For the sake of this experiment, we’re making the following assumptions:
1. We’re assuming the political line of division is the same as in the USA. There’s a red party and a blue party. The red party represents conservative and nationalistic values and appeals more to older and rural voters, whereas the blue party represents progressive and international values and appeals more to younger and urban voters.
My assessment of whether each province would be a red province or a blue province is thus mainly based on the province’s education level, wealth, degree of urbanization, and dominant economic sectors; all of which are also strong political indicators in the US.
If, by some far-fetched turn of events, China were really to adapt a two-party democratic system of government like the US, the line of division between the two parties would likely be different, reflecting the particular cultural, geographical and economic realities of China. But this is difficult to say anything definitive about and ultimately impossible to guess.
2. On the technical side, we’re assuming that the electoral college works the same as in the US: 538 total electors with each province electing a number proportional to its population but the minimum number being 3. Each of the 538 electors represents about 2,7 million people on average.
3. I have included Taiwan in the thought experiment. I’m thinking if we’re already imagining that China is democratic, it’s also easier to imagine it reunited with Taiwan. Hong Kong and Macau (with its population of only 600,000) are lumped together for a total of 3 electors.
*China has 32 first level administrative divisions, but only 23 are technically provinces. The rest are 4 municipalities and 5 autonomous regions. Taiwan is considered (by the People’s Republic of China) to be one of the 23 provinces, whereas Hong Kong and Macau are considered “special administrative regions” (SAR) and not counted among the 32.
What would the map look like?
Here’s what I believe the map would look like:
We can see some major similarities with the US here, as well as some major differences. Let’s take a look at what the map tells us about some of the political realities (or rather, hypotheticalities…) of the Chinese electoral college:
– There’s a geographical divide, just like in the US, but it’s even clearer in China. The thriving coastal provinces to the East have higher urban populations, higher education levels and economies more centered around technology and services. The Western provinces are poorer and more sparsely populated. But China has only one coast to the US’ two.
– Population density correlates with preferred party, just like in the US. The less densely populated provinces tend to be red, and the densely populated ones tend to be blue.
– The map is inherently gerrymandered against Blue. Four of the biggest cities in China have their own administrative division. These areas would be likely to vote Blue by huge margins, which means a lot of blue votes will be wasted. In the US, New York City and Chicago paint the entire states of New York and Illinois permanently blue. The blue paint of Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tianjin hardly spreads beyond the city limits.
– Guangdong is China’s California. Complete with a “bay area” around the Pearl River Delta, Guangdong is the California of China: the most populous province, the largest economy, the primary technology hub, culturally independent and located far from the capital. To the south of Guangdong, Hainan is China’s Hawaii; a tropical island with a strong tourism sector.
– Shanxi, Henan, Anhui and Jiangxi are China’s Appalachia. Not very far inland from the booming coastal provinces, we find a long belt of poor, landlocked provinces. Despite China’s hukou restrictions which make domestic migration cumbersome, many young people depart these provinces in favor of big cities in other provinces, leaving behind societies which area becoming more and more obsolete in the greater scheme, just like we’re seeing in states like West Virginia and Kentucky in the US. These provinces would all be very likely to vote Red.
– The Northeast (Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang) are China’s “rust belt”. A few decades ago, the Chinese Northeast was driving the country’s economy with its enormous manufacturing sector. This is where China builds cars, ships, airplanes and many other heavy industry products. Now, as the Chinese economy is transitioning from a production economy to a consumer economy and Southeast Asian countries with lower wage levels are beginning to be competitive in the advanced industries, the Northeast is no longer the flagship of the Chinese economy.
– Race is not a thing in imaginary Chinese politics. China is home to 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. However, since the largest of them makes up 92% of the population (in the US, it’s 61% or 73% depending if you consider “white” and “latino” the same or not), ethnic differences would not be important in Chinese party politics on a national level. Race/ethnicity would only be important in three provinces: Tibet, where only 8% belong to the majority Han Chinese, Xinjiang, where only 45% are Han Chinese, and Yunnan, where 67% are Han Chinese.
How an election would go down
Just like in the US, most of the provinces would be safely in the hands of one party before the election. Let’s do a list.
The blue provinces:
The blue provinces consist of the self-governing city provinces, the progressive islands of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Hainan, the rich coastal provinces which host high-culture cities like Nanjing, Hangzhou and Xiamen, and finally Hubei, which is included because it has a large proportion of urban population and the (well, normally) thriving megacity of Wuhan.
The red provinces:
The red provinces consist of the “appalachian” Eastern inland provinces, the rural Western and Southwestern provinces, the remote and barren provinces of Gansu, Ningxia, and Qinghai (China’s Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, if you will…), as well as Heilongjiang in the Northeast.
These provinces would all be likely to vote Red but they are a bit less predictable. Inner Mongolia actually has a reasonably high urban population, despite being known for its endless steppes and nomads. Tibet, Yunnan and Xinjiang all have very rural populations and rural cultures which would normally be associated with voting for Red. However, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, the large non-Han populations might want to vote for the less nationalistic of the two parties, since many of them don’t identify with the nationalistic vision of China. The reason I’m putting them in the red roster is because I think it’s more likely that most of these non-Han citizens would simply choose not to vote. We have to remember that they are a very small voting bloc on a national level so it’s unlikely that either of the two parties would take any interest in them in a national election.
The swing provinces:
As election day closes in, this is where we’ll find the hungry Chinese media trailing the imaginary Chinese presidential candidates.
Liaoning and Jilin are like the American swing states of Michigan and Wisconsin: Struggling industrial powerhouses in the Northern part of the country which may swing either way in an election. As the economically largest of the two and home to the two major cities of Shenyang and Dalian, Liaoning is Blue’s to lose. Conversely, being somewhat more focused on agriculture and with a less urban population, Jilin is Red’s to lose. We’d see presidential candidates having rallies at steelyards in these provinces, promising to keep the wheels turning and the jobs from seeping Southwest.
Southwest of the Northeast lies the capital, Beijing, and around it lies the important swing province of Hebei. Hebei province has one of the largest economies in China, and it’s nicely split between primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, with the best high-tech jobs being sucked up by nearby Beijing and Tianjin. Still, given that Hebei is very densely populated (outside its mountainous areas) and economically fit, it’s Blue’s to lose.
On the face of it, Hunan is a rural province which should vote Red. But Hunan is always hard to predict. It has produced a completely disproportionate amount of A-list celebrities of Chinese history, including the ancient minister of the glorious kingdom of Chu, Qu Yuan (who is celebrated each year at China’s Dragon Boat Festival), Zeng Guofan who crushed the Christian cultist Taiping rebellion, and communist party stars Liu Shaoqi and Zhu Rongji. Oh, and Mao Zedong. But Qu Yuan is particularly important. The kingdom of Chu perished over 2000 years ago but that’s no eternity in Chinese history, and there’s still a slight “different than the rest” culture in Hunan. Like Colorado, Utah or New Hampshire in the U.S., it’s a province whose politics might not follow clearly from its map location. Still, it’s Red’s to lose.
Finally, we have the biggest swing state – the Florida of China in that sense – Sichuan. With its 31 electors and its 80 million very diverse voters, this is where you can expect a month-long campaign siege and nailbiting recounts. Sichuan’s diverse geography of mountains in the West and forests and farmland in the East means all kinds of industries are present. The capital, Chengdu, is becoming one of China’s main electronics and IT hubs as well as a regional financial center. Sichuan is the closest you get to a microcosm of all of China, and that makes it the perfect swing state. But at the end of the day, its high proportion of rural population means it might lean towards Red.
A red victory
Now let’s take a look at how an election may play out. Here’s what a red victory could look like:
Red’s candidate has claimed Sichuan and Hunan and also persuaded the Northeastern swing provinces that his conservative approach will reinstate their past glory days. The blue bloc is huddled along the Chinese coastline.
Once elected, the red president would need to deliver on promises made to his rural base to mitigate the effects of the fast urbanization that is currently propelling the Chinese economy towards the strata of the developed nations but at the same time causing desolation in rural areas. At the same time, the red president would need to keep more progressive and urban swing state voters in places like Chengdu city, Hebei and Liaoning convinced that his conservative approach won’t stifle economic development or hinder their lifestyles.
A blue victory:
Here’s what a blue victory might look like:
Blue has held on to the key provinces of Liaoning and Hebei and also convinced considerable chunks of the rural populations in Sichuan and Hunan that they will be part of the bright future Blue that is building. The red bloc has been consigned to China’s peripheral backwater provinces.
Once elected, the blue president will need to make sure the country doesn’t get split in two, with the coastal provinces charging ahead while the inland provinces get left behind. While delivering technological progress and liberalization, he will have to make sure the Sichuan and Hunan countryside and the laid-off factory workers in Liaoning and Jilin also benefit from the gains made.
As fanciful as this all is, it still makes for an interesting thought experiment. And whatever one’s opinion about the electoral college, everyone must admit it makes for exciting elections with a pleasant abundance of strategic considerations!
How do you think a Chinese electoral college scenario would play out? How would you run your campaign as a red or blue candidate in China? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.