People’s Congresses — the lowest rung in China’s government structure, equivalent to neighborhood commissions — have elections every three to five years for posts that are largely symbolic. Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, Typically, elections to China’s local people’s congresses... excite little interest. More than two million lawmakers are chosen in the only government posts — other than village leaders and the odd government-approved experiment — that are determined by direct election. Ordinary Chinese typically sit out the referendums...because they view the results as foreordained.”

Local congresses are relatively powerless bodies in the complex system that the party maintains as a formal display of grass-roots participation. Until now, they have been filled almost entirely with candidates from the party, or people endorsed by it.

Recently there has been more — on the surface anyway — elections for People’s Congress (PC) seats. According to China’s Election Law, any citizen can become a candidate for PC elections as long as he or she is nominated by a party or social group, or receive the signatures of 10 people in the district supporting their candidacy. But the law also says all candidates must be “confirmed” by the local election committee, which publishes the final list of candidates, sets rules for campaigning and even determines the shape of the districts. The local election committee in each district is controlled by the Communist Party. Higher-level legislatures’such as those of big cities, provinces and the National People’s Congress [NPC] — are not open for direct elections.

Local People Congress Elections in 2011

The 2011-2012 election cycle for local people’s congresses in May 2011 and continued through into 2012.

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief, “At People’s Congress elections in Guangzhou in September 2011, voters in the city and neighboring counties cast their ballots to pick 5,000-odd PC legislators from close to 9,000 candidates. The CCP, China’s eight so-called “democratic parties” (which are offshoots of and financed by the CCP) and recognized social and “mass” organizations nominated all of the candidates. Municipal authorities sent several hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes public and state security personnel to maintain order. Perhaps due to the lack of real competition, voters were noticeably unenthusiastic. In many voting booths, ballot casters were outnumbered by election officials and law enforcement agents by a large margin.”[Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, vol. 11, no. 17, September 16, 2011]

Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times, “Official machinations have become more obvious and more intense in 2011 — a telling indicator of the government’s paranoia over a greatly increased pool of independent candidates, even given the near powerlessness of the congresses. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, December 4, 2011]

Li Fan, who has been monitoring the elections around the country, told the New York Times the votes were more rigged than ever.”It is a big step backward from previous years.” said Mr. Li, director of the World and China Institute, a nongovernmental research center in Beijing. The government, obsessed with the notion that political stability must be maintained, “has taken strict control of the elections,” he said.

Inspired by the potential of Internet services like China’s Twitter-like microblogs to create visibility and impetus, an unprecedented number of independent candidates are trying to contest the Communist Party’s chosen candidates for two million seats on the local People’s Congresses. In past years, no strategy has worked. But in a turnabout, this year’s push by outsiders to infiltrate China’s local political process is creating ripples, partly because of the momentum and visibility they are building via Twitter-like services on the Chinese Internet.

Not only are there more candidates — estimates range from more than 100 to thousands — but they are also no longer faceless challengers who can be shoved aside without a whimper. Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute , a nongovernmental research center in Beijing, told the New York Times the surge in such candidacies is “a very strong indication that the government cannot continue to totally dominate public policy.” [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, October 11, 2011]

But in the end independent candidates failed to make much progress. In the early November elections Mr. Li told the New York Times although Beijing had a surge of 40 to 50 grass-roots candidates, not one was elected. The same held true in voting on Sept. 8 in Wuhan, a city in east-central China, and on Nov. 18 in Shanghai, he said. The local governments “do not want to see any independent candidate be seated,” he said. [Op. Cit, Lafraniere, December 4, 2011]

Surge of Independent Candidates in Local People’s Congresses

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “All across China, scores of ordinary citizens are challenging the Communist Party’s ironclad grip on political life, launching full-blown campaigns outside its grasp for local “people’s congresses.” The local congresses — the lowest rung in China’s government structure, equivalent to neighborhood commissions — are relatively powerless bodies in the complex system that the party maintains as a formal display of grass-roots participation. Until now, they have been filled almost entirely with candidates from the party, or people endorsed by it. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, September 9, 2011]

But the unprecedented number of candidates stepping forward without the party’s backing for elections that begin this fall marks a potential watershed in China’s political evolution, testing the leadership’s professed commitment to allowing democracy to develop from the bottom up.”Under the law, Chinese people have the right to stand in these elections and to vote, but in reality, China is far away from democracy,” said Zhang Kai, a Beijing lawyer and activist in an unauthorized Christian church who is running as an independent. “Right now, China is experiencing a peaceful transformation,” Zhang said, explaining how this year’s many candidates, from many different backgrounds, demonstrates a growing political consciousness and a popular hunger for more say in how they are governed. A few candidates who were not affiliated with the Communist Party have run in past elections for local congresses, but they received virtually no media coverage and few votes. This time around, however, the independent candidates — academics, students, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and farmers — are attracting widespread publicity and mounting serious campaigns, using social media and live Internet broadcasts. The Communist Party seems to be grappling to find a coherent response. “Some are cheering from the sidelines,” said Elizabeth Economy, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. “There are certainly others who view this as very threatening.”

The wide swath of candidates running, Economy said, “Shows the breadth of interest in real reform.” But on the question of whether the party will allow the independents to prevail, or whether they could affect the system from inside if they did, she and other analysts sounded far more cautious.

Most analysts were skeptical that the elections will mark a turning point in China’s gradual evolution to more democracy. They point to much-heralded village elections, which began in the late 1980s with great fanfare, but failed to move beyond that level.The last round of local elections, in 2006-07, produced a handful of independent winners, but they have had no apparent impact on livening the debate or altering the system and have been rarely heard from since they won their seats.

But perhaps the biggest question: Can elections in a system totally controlled by one party can be considered free and fair? “I have confidence it will be free and fair — that’s why I’m running,” Xu said. “I really hope I can go through this election smoothly, so people will have hope for China’s elections.” Zhang said, “Free and fair is a relative concept. I hope this one will be freer than the previous one. And the next might be even freer.”

Deciding to Run as an Independent Candidates in China

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “Xu Yan, 27, the candidate in Hongzhou, said he first became interested when he was 18 and voted in the local congress elections without knowing anything about the candidates. “I decided I would be a candidate, and people would know me,” Xu said in an interview at a bookshop he was using as a de facto headquarters. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, September 9, 2011]

After a long night’s consideration, Xu said he made his decision to run and posted it at 3 a.m. on May 26 on his weibo account, where his reputation for taking controversial stands — such as criticizing the government’s response to the recent high-speed train crash at Wenzhou — has helped him draw more than 10,000 followers. In July, Xu’s company, a real estate advertising firm, came under investigation by various government agencies, including the tax bureau and the labor office. Xu quit his job but stayed in the race.

Strategy for Independent Candidates in 2011: Keeping a Low Public Profile

Sharon LaFraniere wrote in the New York Times, For at least some candidates seeking parliamentary seats in local Chinese elections this year, the winning formula is the very antithesis of what works in the United States. Here, they keep their heads down and elucidate no platform. And if they campaign at all, their politicking is discreetly low-key. “The last thing you want to do is gather people together,” Yao Bo, a well-known social commentator aiming for a legislative seat in a Beijing district, said in October. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, October 11, 2011]

That is because Mr. Yao is running as an independent in an election that is ostensibly open to all comers, but in fact is stacked in favor of the Communist Party’s handpicked candidates. To have any hope of cracking the system, some candidates argue, an outsider must either be so famous that he or she cannot be blocked from running without an outcry, or so anonymous that the authorities are caught off guard.

Consider the candidacy of Guo Huojia, 59, a vegetable and fruit seller with a primary school education. He has battled local authorities outside Guangzhou for four years over what he claims are illegal government seizures of farms for development. This summer, Mr. Guo decided to take his frustrations to the people. He gathered the necessary signatures — a minimum of 10 — to be nominated by individual voters, instead of by the Communist Party or party-affiliated organizations. He slid onto the ballot, and on Sept. 28, he was elected with 4,827 votes, beating the next vote-getter, a government-backed candidate, by about 2,000 votes.

“It is my honor to be elected representative for advocating rights by law,” he said in a telephone interview. Asked about his campaign, Mr. Guo said: “I didn’t really have one. I kept a low profile.” Once in office, however, he hopes to pressure the authorities to return confiscated rice farms to him and his fellow villagers.

History is not on his side: Yao Lifa, a teacher described as the first “non-affiliated” delegate elected to a local people’s congress in 1998, was defeated for re-election after what the Chinese media called a fruitless term. Since then, he has been subject to detention and constant government harassment.

Weibos, Bloggers and Independent Candidates in Local People’s Congresses

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “The independents have a powerful new tool on their side: weibo, the hugely popular Twitter-like Chinese microblogging sites that have allowed candidates to announce their intentions, lay out their positions on issues in their neighborhoods and reach potential supporters. Many have their own Web sites, and Xu Yan has put out a new five-minute video each week, talking about his ideas on local issues, such as parking problems; he has produced 10 such videos, a seeming first in China. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, September 9, 2011]

There have even been the campaign trappings and rituals that would feel familiar in any Western democracy — like Xu Chunliu, an independent candidate in Beijing, who is passing out campaign T-shirts to supporters, another apparent first for a Chinese election.

“People don’t have any formal political institutions,” said Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute, a think tank that has prepared a guidebook for independent candidates. “These local people’s congresses are the people’s only channel to fight for their rights.” So far, Li said, more than 100 independents have announced their intentions through microblogs. But he expects many more will enter the races once the rules in each district are made public. Li said he encourages independents to maintain a low profile to avoid attracting too much government scrutiny.

Still, the number already announcing their plans, and their high level of online campaigning, “means more and more people are trying to enter the political system. Now the system is closed. It’s run by the party elite. If you don’t open it, people will try to break in.” For now, officials in some places seem to have interpreted the rules loosely, allowing the independents to continue to campaign on weibo, with Beijing among the most tolerant.

Independents Use Microblogging to Advance Democracy

Brice Pedroletti wrote in Le Monde, “Xu Chunliu, 31, walks into the cafeteria at Sohu, the Chinese internet conglomerate, wearing shorts, a check shirt and trainers with no laces. Xu is a journalist and one of a new generation of young Chinese who are determined to compete in the coming general election. They want to serve as delegates to one of the people's congresses at district, township or county level, the only echelon at which direct suffrage is possible for independent candidates in communist China. [Source: Brice Pedroletti , Le Monde The Guardian, June 7, 2011]

“Theoretically anyone may run for office, providing they are endorsed by 10 fellow citizens, but in practice delegates are often appointed on-high. All sorts of obstacles await independent candidates, who numbered 100,000 in 2006-07. Above all, the media have instructions to mention neither their name nor their platform. A few pioneering spirits have already tested the system's resistance. In 1998, after a 10-year struggle, Yao Lifa, of Qianjiang, Hubei province, became the first independent delegate to be elected. In 2003 a host of lawyers and writers entered the race, determined to see existing laws put into practice. Some were indeed elected, in particular in Beijing's Haidan district. They include the lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who will complete his second term of office this year.”

“The censors are ready and waiting for the coming electoral season, from July 2011 to December 2012, but they may yet be bettered by microblogging services such as Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Xu Chunliu and a dozen other web activists have decided to set up a platform to report on their campaigns and communicate with the electorate. The service, implemented by Sina, a competitor of Sohu, “brings together people who share the same enthusiasm”, as Xu puts it.”

“This new sally by civil society may seem doomed to failure, but in fact, despite the climate of repression, previously taboo political issues are being aired. In a recent editorial the Nanfang Dushi Bao, the most liberal of the Chinese dailies, hailed the existence of “Weibo candidates [who] advance our understanding of democratic processes?. Its hardline conservative counterpart Huanqiu Shibao retorted that independents would be better advised to “climb down from Weibo and return to reality?".

“Xu used to write for the press, but frustrated by censorship he moved to Sohu, where he interviews public figures. He will be running for a seat in the Dongcheng district congress in Beijing. He maintains that China is no longer a monolithic whole and that various interest groups need to gain a hearing. But whereas the most underprivileged play on the threat of chaos and the most prosperous enjoy direct links to the circles of power, the "median" class of "educated urbanites" is under-represented, according to Xu. As a district delegate he would address various problems such as the lack of parking spaces, and conflicts between the owners of flats and building management services.”

“Weibo candidates are led by a striking figure, Li Chengpeng, 43, who will be standing in a district of Chengdu, Sichuan. A former journalist, Li is the author of a novel on forced demolition programmes that caused a stir when it was published in January. His blog now boasts 2.9 million followers and he promises to "supervise the government". He has formed a team of advisers for his campaign. They include the sociologist Yu Jianrong, a specialist in social issues raised by the internet, and the investigative journalist Wang Keqin. Two lawyers will be advising on legal issues and Li is also counting on input from two "friends", the high-profile writer and blogger Han Han and film director Feng Xiaogang, China's box-office champion. In these days of individual mass communication media, such a celebrity line-up carries lots of weight.

“The rash of Weibo candidates was triggered by Liu Peng's unsuccessful campaign. After labouring for 31 years, the 47-year-old steel worker was pushed into retirement by her public-sector employer with a wretched pension. She petitioned party leaders, but to no avail. In April she registered as a candidate for a May byelection in her local district in Xinyu, Jiangxi province, and started campaigning in the street and on the net. “In almost 50 years I've never seen a ballot paper. I've always paid my taxes and fulfilled my civic duties. This time I'm going to fight for my rights as a citizen,” she wrote in a blog that has attracted almost 30,000 followers, earning her the nickname of “China's Rosa Parks”. She was arrested a few days before the poll and taken into secret custody. The local authorities say that she was being manipulated by hostile outside forces. Her story sent a shockwave through the Chinese cybersphere. In the capital the sociologist Yu Jianrong reported himself to the local authorities for belonging to “hostile inside forces”.”

Youthful idealists have also joined the fray, including Liu Ruoxi, 18, a high school student in Shenzhen who gathered more than 2,000 signatures for his candidacy. A supporter of multiparty democracy, Mr. Liu said he would campaign for students’ rights via Twitter-like microblogs, or weibos.

Communist Party Efforts to Thwart Independent Candidate Use of Microblogging

Sharon LaFraniere wrote in the New York Times, “The ability of candidates to whip up online sentiment for political change appears to be what most worries the authorities. One state security officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly, said regulatory authorities were considering measures to curb microblogging sites partly because of the potential for political networking. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times October 11, 2011]

Indeed, Global Times warned in a May editorial that “the independent candidates could destroy the current system by soliciting votes on the Internet.” And propaganda authorities have intervened to suppress news of independent candidates, most recently with a Sept. 26 order from Beijing officials not to mention them, according to an editor for a party-run publication, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to comment to foreign reporters.

Under Chinese election law, local candidates can be nominated by political parties or social organizations or via petitions signed by 10 or more voters. But China Daily reported in June that they must still pass muster with the party-government election committees. Those committees are also supposed to supervise interactions between candidates and voters, a regulation that can thwart outsiders’ campaigns.

This year, however, outsiders are using their microblogs to expose such interference. Liang Shuxin, 35, a Communist Party member and executive with the social networking Internet forum Tianya, sought a local legislative seat in Guangzhou, but less than a month before the vote, the local election committee announced that candidates must be female, workers and not a member of the Communist Party. The restriction was later dropped, but Mr. Liang was still left off the ballot. Government censors banned all mention of the controversy, according to the editor at the party publication. “It is outrageous how they trampled the dignity of the law,” Mr. Liang complained online. Mr. Li, the elections expert, called the Guangzhou poll “fraudulent.”

According to three would-be candidates, so were the polls for district legislators in Xinyu, a city of 1.1 million in Jiangxi Province. Liu Ping, 47, who was forced to retire from an iron and steel factory, said that when she inquired about becoming a candidate, an official retorted: “You want to be a people’s representative? You should just be a prostitute.”

In the end, officials cited her “previous behavior” and other reasons to deny her candidacy and those of two other outsiders. All three said they were detained and forced to stay in guest houses outside the city during voting. Nor was that the end of it: Wan Cheng, a lawyer pursuing a complaint of election fraud for one of the three, said that shortly after police officers visited him at his hotel in Xinyu, 10 men barged into his hotel room and beat him.

Yao Bo, the social commentator, learned Friday that he too had been denied a spot on the Beijing district ballot. “I assume they found better candidates than me,” he said dryly of the authorities. He still plans to run as a write-in candidate. Change does not occur overnight, he said, “but if you have rights and you don’t try to exercise them, then you have no rights at all.”

Harassment of Independent Candidates in China

Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “The party has reacted harshly to some independent candidates. Some have been harassed by security officials and placed under house arrest. Others report receiving pressure to drop their candidacies. Xu Yan, a candidate in Hongzhou city, in Zhejiang province, said he quit his job after his employer was visited several times by tax authorities. Zhang Kai, the Beijing lawyer, said he has been stopped from traveling abroad.” Zhang, said, “People have to pay a price to promote social progress. Someone has to go first.” As a lawyer, he said his main concern, if elected, will be China’s legal system and supervising the judicial system in his neighborhood.

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief, “The plight of Yao Lifa, a primary-school teacher in the town of Qianjiang, Hebei Province, illustrates well the direction in which the political wind is blowing. Yao became famous in 1998 when he successfully ran for a place in the Qianjiang PC as an independent candidate. In 2004, the year he left the legislature, Yao was invited by the State Department to visit the United States to have a first-hand look at American-style democracy. He has since become an unofficial adviser to independent candidates nationwide. Earlier this year, however, this pioneer in Chinese-style grassroots democracy has been placed under police surveillance. During an interview with the Hong Kong media in early summer, Yao indicated “only independent candidates can speak up for the people, who are distrustful of the promises made by corrupt officials.” During the interview, however, electricity in Yao’s apartment was turned off and, later, the police took the former legislator away for interrogation.” [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, vol. 11, no. 17, September 16, 2011]

Independent Candidates Kept Out of Local Elections

As of their effort to “nip all destabilizing forces in the bud” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has used draconian methods to prevent roughly one hundred public intellectuals from running for local-level parliamentary elections. Since May, scores of academics, writers, bloggers, businessmen and NGO activists have announced their intention to run in elections for People’s Congresses (PC) at the level of counties and townships as well as municipal districts. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, vol. 11, no. 17, September 16, 2011]

Willy Lam wrote in China Brief, “Big-name public intellectuals and community figures who wanted to become “independent candidates” for PCs included veteran labor activist Liu Ping from Jiangxi Province; Shanghai writer and businessman Xia Shang; Sichuan’s Net-based social critic Li Chengpeng, whose blog has 3 million subscribers; and Guangzhou-based NGO activist Liang Shuxin, who runs a respected educational foundation.

None of these well-regarded intellectuals managed to become official candidates. This is despite the fact that all of them are considered moderate social critics, not political dissidents, like Liu Ping. She was disqualified from taking part in the recently held polls in the city of Xinyu, Jiangxi Province. Since she declared her desire to run in May, the activist was subjected to police harassment. Her flat was raided and she was briefly detained by public security officials. As a result of police intimidation, the majority of Xinyu residents who had nominated her for her candidature withdrew their support. Liu’s main political platform was ensuring that all employers observe the Labor Law.

Caixin Online reported: Liu Ping wanted to be an everyman’s candidate in a race for a local delegate to the National People’s Congress. She gave it her all. But the high-school educated woman who retired in 2009 from Yuanxingang Equipment and Materials Co., a branch of Xinyu Iron and Steel Group, found all roads blocked. One apparent reason was that Liu had tried to stand up for worker rights by bringing a local grievance petition to the central government in Beijing. For her activist stance, she was detained by authorities and later released. In bidding for NPC candidacy, Liu said she spent almost all her time making speeches in a bid for a candidate’s slot after an official election list was posted April 15. [Source: China Digital Times (CDT), Caixin Onlin, July 12, 2011]

Similar incidents have happened to other aspiring candidates. After making known his desire to run in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, several Ministry of State Security officers visited Xia Shang. Xia also noted the local taxation department wanted new audits of his two firms’ accounts. “I’m all for incremental, non-confrontational politics,” said Xia, who added he did not understand why the authorities wanted him not to contest the elections. Sichuan’s Li Chengpeng was prevented from becoming an official candidate because the majority of his nominees had succumbed to police pressure and forced to withdraw their support. The popular blogger and writer said a Chengdu firm had backed out of a tennis sponsorship for his son due to pressure from a “mysterious [government] department.” [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, vol. 11, no. 17, September 16, 2011]

Liang Shuxin, who lives in the middle-class Panyu District of Guangzhou, persevered until late last month. His platform — building an open grocery market to help fellow citizens beat inflation — was the least political among all the would-be legislators. Moreover, he had secured 23 nominations from citizens living in his constituency. Local authorities announced in August, however, that all independent candidates running in the district must be non-CCP members and female. The “regulation” was waived due to protests by Liang, who is both male and a party member. The bulk of the activist’s original nominees however withdrew their names after receiving warnings from police.

Apart from using force, the authorities have mounted a publicity blitz against the would-be candidates. An official at the NPC’s Commission for Legislative Affairs (CLA) indicated in June that “there is no such a thing as an “independent candidate” as this is not recognized by law.” He added that citizens wanting to run for PCs could only become official candidates after “discussion, consultation or primary elections” organized by the government’s electoral committees. The CLA cadre also indicated “all campaign activities must be organized by electoral committees.” This apparently meant that Internet-based campaigning is illegal. At the same time, the Global Times pointed out in an editorial that China’s one-party system had no room for candidates who adopted an “opposing attitude” toward the authorities. It warned “independent candidates could destroy the current [political] system by soliciting votes on the Internet.”

Political Aspirant 'Disappeared'

On the troubles encountered by an independent candidate running for office in a local election, Daily Kos reported: “Ping Liu was a worker in a state-owned enterprise in Xinyu City, Jiangxi Province, until two years ago, when she became a victim of the "forced internal retirement", which is the way for state-owned businesses to quickly trim their staff and become competitive. After being forced into retirement, she tried to organize coworkers who were also forced to retire to try to present their case to government agencies and seek redress. For two years their case went nowhere.” [Source: Daily Kos, May 12, 2011]

“This year Ping Liu decided to run for People's Congress in order to address the wider issue of economic injustice in the society. Her platform is basically workers' right and transparency in corporate governance. As soon as she declared her independent candidacy, she started to be harassed by police. She tried to hold a few campaign rallies but each time police used force to disperse the crowd.

Ping collected the number of signatures required by law in order to get on the ballot. Despite that, when the official ballot appeared, her name was not on it. None of the other independent candidates got on the ballot either. Her friends started to spread the words on the internet in order to help her candidacy. Within hours of her microblog (Chinese version of twitter) entry, it was retweeted by thousands.

Yesterday her friend Jianrong Yu twitted that he had not heard from Ping Liu for over ten hours. They had arranged that if she would be out of contact for that long then something had definitely happened, and he was to file a missing person report. His announcement on the microblog that Ping Liu was disappeared was retweeted by nearly 50,000 people, and became the focus of a whole nation - despite a complete blackout by the media.

Finally, the authorities gave in and released her. Ping Liu returned home at 1:30 am. Upon returning home, she said on her blog, she found her apartment ransacked by police. Electricity has been cut from her apartment. And police is now stationed at the stairway outside her apartment 24/7. She says that "she is being safed (by police)" now.

Promising Candidates and Elections in a Liberal District in Beijing

Haidian District, a Beijing sector of 1.6 million residents, is particularly hospitable to such challenges from independent candidates, Sharon Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times. The district, chockablock with universities and known for its comparatively liberal bent, elected China’s first independent candidate in 1984. According to Mr. Li, Haidian fielded 23 of Beijing’s roughly 28 successful independent candidates in 2003 and all 16 independent candidates elected in the capital in 2006. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, December 4, 2011]

Of the many grass-roots candidates running in Beijing in 2011, “Qiao Mu, an energetic 41-year-old journalism professor in the capital, seemed one of the better bets. He was well known and liked on the campus of the Beijing Foreign Studies University , his election district. He ran an innovative campaign, making full use of social networks and other Internet tools. He amassed a cadre of enthusiastic student campaigners, and he aimed for practical improvements in campus life: a faster Internet connection and permission for students to study in the spare classrooms instead of the crowded cafeteria. Mr. Qiao, a Communist Party member who advocates democratic reforms, seemed an especially intriguing candidate. As a student in 1989, he participated in the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, but faced no repercussions. Later he went to work for Beijing government’s foreign affairs office, where he said he was disgusted by the “ridiculous ideology,” low pay, corruption and bureaucracy.

He returned to academia, joining the faculty of the Foreign Studies University in 2002. Now an associate professor and director of the Center for International Communications Studies, he cultivates ties with students, regularly joining them in the cafeteria. He announced his candidacy on Sept. 28, he said, because “it is my right.” Some of his tactics were avant-garde by China’s standards, such as going online to sell book bags emblazoned with his photo, and touring dormitories with his wife and daughter in tow. But his proposals were strictly nonpolitical, such as moving a smelly garbage collection site.

Crackdown on Independent Candidates in Beijing

Mr. Qiao lost anyway, Lafraniere wrote in the New York Times. A university vice president — a largely unknown personage whose campaign amounted to some posters — collected three times as many votes. Mr. Qiao said authorities did all they could to stymie him, keeping his name off the ballot, threatening his student volunteers, even forcibly collecting the red bookmarks he had printed with the slogan: “I am the master of my ballot.” “The harassment started from the very beginning,” he said in an interview in his university office, still cluttered with campaign paraphernalia he never got to distribute. “It is a shame, because I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “All we did was follow China’s Constitution and election law.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, December 4, 2011]

Before he even gathered student volunteers for a meeting, Qiao told the New York Times his department’s party leader urged him to withdraw, telling him, “What you have said about democracy has made the authorities very angry.”Undeterred, he collected more than 500 signatures from faculty and students — more than 50 times the number required by law. The university responded by announcing that the university’s vice president and another university official had more signatures and would be the only names on the ballot.

Professor Qiao then tried to mount a write-in campaign, but one by one, his student volunteers quit. Some said that school officials had telephoned their parents, warning them that their children were engaged in illegal activities. “They even told students that they were going to ask their parents to come to the school,” said one graduate student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was afraid of getting into trouble. “Most students thought it was so unfair.”

Rumors swirled that Mr. Qiao was a tool of the American Embassy or the foreign media, or that he was on his way out. School officials demanded that students turn in their red bookmarks and barred Mr. Qiao from the dormitories. University officials repeatedly advised him that government and university policies and regulations carried more weight than an election law.

In the final week before the vote, he said, his telephone calls were monitored and two security officers tailed him. Except for e-mail, his Internet tools were disabled, a situation that persists to this day. That included three microblog accounts on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, another blog with his scholarly articles, a video site with his campaign clips, and two social networking pages, where 20,000 people followed his posts. “It seemed like my mouth was forced shut and my ears were cut off,” he said.

On Nov. 8, he said, colorful banners on campus urged people to “vote gloriously” and “enhance the rule of law.” Of 8,030 people who cast ballots, 1,296 wrote in his name. The university vice president won with 4,127 votes. Given the stacked playing field, Mr. Qiao considers that a victory. “What they did to me,” he said, “Shows their weakness and my strength.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2011

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