As local government elections get underway nationwide in China, a new breed of independent would-be politician is emerging to challenge the ruling Communist party’s near total stranglehold on political power.
Harnessing the mobilizing power of social networking websites for the first time and attracting unprecedented attention to themselves, these candidates for local Peoples’ Congresses are posing a dilemma for the government.
“There appears to be some uncertainty and debate at the upper echelons [of government] about how to deal with this,” says Russell Leigh Moses, author of an upcoming book on the changing nature of power in China.
Some of those putting themselves forward as candidates, such as popular blogger Li Chengpeng, seem likely to be thorns in the authorities’ side. “You will never know the benefit of standing up if you always stay on your knees,” Mr. Li declared in a combative campaign statement he sent out to his 2 million followers on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog.
Others seem to be simply asking for a chance to participate in a system that has almost always excluded citizens who are not members of the Communist party. “I want public opinion to be translated into public policy,” says Xu Yan, a young advertising executive in the eastern city of Hangzhou, explaining why he is hoping to be a candidate in his local elections later this year.
Denied ballot space
The initial signals have not augured well for the more outspoken independents. Liu Ping, a woman living in the eastern province of Jiangxi who had made a name for herself by bringing her grievances with the local government to the central government’s attention, was denied a place on the ballot in her local elections last month, and detained by the police during the election period.
“But I don’t think the government can constantly put itself on high alert and stop independents from running by branding them enemies of the state,” says Liu Yawei, director of the Carter Center’s China program in Atlanta. Government interference, he warns, will lead to “challenges, and maybe a storm brewing.”
The local elections, which began last month, will continue until December next year. The bodies to be chosen are on the lowest level of China’s governance system, dealing mainly with nuts and bolts issues such as garbage collection and local business regulation, but they offer the only real chance that Chinese citizens outside the Communist party have to play a role in public life.
The cost of standing for election
Independents have stood in such elections before, but rarely with much success. And the winners have often been made to pay.
One of the best known, Yao Lifa, won a seat as a write-in candidate for the Qianjiang city Peoples’ Congress, in Hubei province, on his fourth attempt in 1998. A teacher, he has not been given a teaching post since, has been beaten up several times, had his bones broken twice, has been repeatedly arrested, and is now under 24 hour police surveillance, he complains.
Some of this year’s independent candidates (about 80 have declared themselves so far, but analysts expect thousands to emerge in the coming months,) are well known political activists like Mr. Yao, who make little secret of their opposition to the Communist party.
Others, however, “reflect a growing understanding that the only way to change the system is to play some part in it,” says Dr. Moses.
“Their candidacies indicate a mix of desperation and aspiration,” he adds. “Desperation about when politics will change, but with aspirations that maybe there is a role they can play.”
Mr. Xu, the advertising executive, recalls that when he first voted in a local election nine years ago he knew neither of the candidates. “They never met voters, or communicated with us,” he says. “I want to change that.”
Now, he has posted a self-introduction on Sina Weibo that he says has already sparked some positive response from local voters, and is planning to upload a video about himself onto the Internet, too. “The web is a very useful tool for me,” he says. “It’s a very efficient and convenient way to communicate with people.”
Social media savvy
The widespread use of social media, the freest forum of public expression in China, makes the coming round of elections “different and exciting,” says Dr. Liu, “but it makes some parts of the government a little nervous, and likely to claim that maybe there are enemies out there using the elections as a way to create instability in China.”
A Communist party newspaper, the Global Times, recently voiced such fears in an editorial. “Opposition sentiment exists in China,” it acknowledged. But “Chinese society is not mature enough to figure out how to treat opposition sentiment, nor to decide whether to allow such sentiment to migrate from the Internet to the real world, nor how far it should be allowed to play a role in Chinese politics,” the editorialist argued.
Though social media are “a fabulous vehicle” for independent candidates, Moses says, they still have to tread a fine line so as to appeal to voters without frightening the authorities, if they are to avoid the sort of trouble Ms. Liu encountered last month.
“They have to be innovative without being threatening,” he adds. “That is a tall order, and it is not at all clear what might transpire.”