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.
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.
That was music to the ears of Yao, who has been trying to get himself elected ever since China began experimenting with grass-roots elections in the 1980s. In 1998, he won a seat on his local People's Congress at his fifth attempt, only to lose a separate race in 2003, a victim of what he calls electoral fraud and intimidation.
This year, Yao set out to help elect more independent candidates in Wuhan, a city in central China. He figured that his electoral know-how and prominence as a former delegate would rally support for them. He was enthused by the revised law. "This is the first time that people can stand up publicly and say 'I'm running for the congress and I want to be elected,' " he says.
But that optimism quickly dissipated. Candidates were harassed by police and prevented from handing out flyers to voters. None of the 18 independent candidates were listed on the final ballots, and all failed to win seats in the congress. Yao didn't compete in Wuhan as he plans to run in another city later this year.
Activists complain that election officials routinely redraw districts to favor their candidates, who are Communist Party members and retired bureaucrats. Backroom deals during primaries – or "black boxes" in Chinese – mean that only approved names appear on the ballot. A last-minute write-in campaign garnered some votes for unapproved candidates, but not enough to win. "To be honest, this election was absurd, it's totally unfair," says Wang Guoqiang, one of the candidates on Yao's informal slate.
It's also dangerous: Wang Dingliang, another contender, was attacked in the street after he followed the car that election officials used to transport the ballot box. Three days later, he was still in the hospital being treated for internal injuries.
Yao and other independents say their primary motivation is to encourage citizens to participate in local politics. Campaign pledges are local, modest, and larded with legal citations for their right to run for office. "Give me a chance and I'll give you a totally different five years!" promises one candidate in a university district. "I will support poor students and create more summer vacation jobs."
As well as battling obstructive officials, candidates must overcome apathy among voters towards the assembly. In contrast, village elections in China, which began in the 1980s, have become more competitive and closely followed, as voters have a greater stake in the outcome.
"The [local] People's Congress is at a higher level, but the deputies are marginal to the social-economic lives of the voters.... If the congress can't play a role of checks and balances, then the elections will just be ceremonial," says Yawei Liu, a professor at Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta who has observed grass-roots elections.
Mr. Xu says that being elected is a platform for activists to push for changes and use the media to highlight issues. As delegates, they can write letters to agencies and expect an answer, unlike regular citizens.
He believes that time is on his side, as a modernizing China struggles to find a balance between top-down dictates and popular representation.
"Society has changed greatly in the last 30 years. The economy has changed. But the government hasn't changed," he says.