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Running outside the party in China – into resistance

Local officials are using election law to block independent candidates.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 28, 2006



WUHAN, CHINA

The polls closed at noon and by 2 p.m. Yao Lifa was hunkered down inside a restaurant with a group of first-time candidates, waiting to hear who had been elected to their local assembly.

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Mr. Yao phoned another candidate who was supposed to be joining the gathering. Their conversation ended abruptly. Yao looked around the table, his can-do smile down a notch. He explained that they would be one short as the police had detained their colleague for telling voters to write his name on the ballot. "The pressure just gets more and more," he sighs.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese are going to the polls this year to vote for their local assembly, offering a small measure of political choice in a one-party state. But independent candidates are finding their path blocked by local officials that flout election law to favor their own loyalists. The result is a democratic gesture that offers little hope to reformers pushing for bottom-up alternatives to authoritarianism.

"The local governments aren't prepared to reform. They keep their traditional ways and don't allow outsiders to participate," says Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute in Beijing and an advocate of grass-roots democracy in China. "These elections are very bad. They're worse than the last elections."

China's leaders have praised the open election of village chiefs and local assemblies as important exercises in democracy. But last month premier Wen Jiaobao told European journalists that China wasn't ready to expand the practice. "The conditions are not yet ripe for conducting direct election at a higher level of government. Democracy, and direct election in particular, should develop in an orderly way."

Elections are being held this year in almost 40,000 rural and urban districts for the local People's Congress, the lowest rung on China's lawmaking ladder. The local congress is responsible for selecting delegates to a provincial assembly, which in turn sends delegates to the National People's Congress, the supreme legislature that meets annually. The staggered voting began July 1 and runs through Dec. 31.

China's local congresses are tasked with overseeing local government, including the appointment of mayors, prosecutors, and judges, and also scrutinizing budgets. Most are rubber-stamp assemblies that meet only a few times a year, but some have become more muscular in recent years, prodded by social activists and entrepreneurs.

Xu Zhiyong, a young law professor, was elected to a district congress in Beijing in 2003. Together with a caucus of other independent delegates, he encouraged the assembly to scrutinize policies toward migrant workers, request line budgets, and raise questions about local officials linked to corruption. But the congress remains stacked with party members that are reluctant to challenge the status quo.

"If we can get more independent candidates, then things will change. We can vote for the head of the district, we can do many things. Right now, we're too small," he says.

In 2004, China changed the election law to give independents more leeway to stand as candidates in township and district councils. In theory, the nomination process is open to any citizen who has the backing of 10 or more registered voters. Candidates are allowed to "introduce themselves" to the public, while some congressional terms were cut to three years, down from five years.

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