JAIME A. FLORCRUZ BanqiaoLast week I joined an American delegation from the Atlanta-based Carter Center to observe township elections of government officials and People's Congress representatives in the verdant countryside of China's southwestern Sichuan province, about 2,000 km from Beijing. It was a rare chance to watch China's tentative experiment with electoral politics. When we arrived in Banqiao (population 1,987), a narrow hamlet of thatched houses and muddy roads, the villagers had all gathered on the basketball court of the local high school to elect three representatives to the township People's Congress. There wasn't a lot of choice: four candidates, all picked by the party, for three seats.The campaign was short, confined to predictable platitudes. The candidates--the incumbent village chief, the town treasurer, the chair of the local women's association and the school principal--stood stiffly on a stage. They gave brief, stilted speeches, pledging to represent the people's interest.By contrast, the voting was festive. Villagers chatted and schoolchildren played. Above them, paper bunting hanging on a string bore a hortatory slogan: exercise your sacred right to cast your ballot! Loudspeakers blared circa-1970s revolutionary songs as people marked the ballots on their lap. Not all residents were enthused. These officials are all the same, a wiry farmer sniffed. I'm not even voting. He complained angrily about the depressed price of pork and lambasted the Zhu Ba (Pork Despot), a local entrepreneur who has monopolized the buying and selling of pigs.Wang Shilan, 48, held four ballots. I'm voting for my whole family because they're busy working, she explained. They told me whom to vote for. When votes were tallied, Lei Mingxiang, 54, the high school principal and a five-term incumbent, was the surprise loser, a victim of parents' wrath. Earlier, Lei had asked each household to fork over 100 renminbi ($12) partly to cover repair of the school building. What can I do? he sighs. The government does not have enough money.Although many local elections are flawed and even precooked, they produce a push-pull process that is changing people's relationship with local politics, says the Carter Center's Charles Costello.The Communist Party does have some trepidation about these free elections. Growing social discontent alarms China's leaders, who believe stability is necessary to improve the nation's economy. A lot of things are going on beyond Beijing's control, notes Emory University professor Robert Pastor. That uneasiness has led to some very public crackdowns, most recently against the nascent China Democracy Party.But the democratic spirit may spread. Predicts Zou Jiahua, a top National People's Congress official: As the economy develops and living standards improve, people will enjoy more democracy. But nurturing democracy is a process. Chinese peasants typically do not think about the glories of remaking society. They think about smaller, more parochial matters like building roads and bridges and picking up cash by selling more kiwi fruit and pork. In their eyes, getting the chance to cast a ballot does not yet ring grandly of revolution. They'd rather find a way to get rid of the Pork Despot.