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With microblogs, outsiders test Beijing’s hold on local elections

November 4, 2011

 November 02, 2011, 10:09 AM

Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

Yao Bo, a well-known social commentator, recently failed to get a spot on
the ballot for a Beijing district legislature, but he said he would still
run as a write-in candidate. BY SHARON LAFRANIERE | 1241 words BEIJING —
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 other countries. 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. 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. 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-language 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. Many if
not most will fail to make it onto the ballot, much less get elected,
because of myriad government impediments, Li Fan, director of the World
and China Institute, a nongovernmental research center in Beijing, said in
an interview. Nonetheless, he said, the surge in such candidacies is ‘‘a
very strong indication that the government cannot continue to totally
dominate public policy.’’ Typically, elections to China’s local people’s
congresses, the lowest parliamentary tier, 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, held every three to five years, because they view the results
as foreordained. But this election cycle, which began in May and will
continue through next year, is already proving different. Consider the
candidacy of Guo Huojia, 59, a vegetable and fruit seller with a primary
school education. He has battled the 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 by telephone. 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 ‘‘nonaffiliated’’ delegate elected to a local
people’s congress in 1998, was defeated for re-election after what the
Chinese news media called a fruitless term. Since then, he has been
subject to detention and constant government harassment. But this year’s
elections have attracted much better-known candidates. Running in the
south-central province of Sichuan is Li Chengpeng, 43, a sports
commentator, social critic and author whose microblog has more than three
million followers. On the ballot in a Beijing district is Wu Danhong, a
professor at China University of Political Science and Law. Both declined
to be interviewed. 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. 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 was not authorized to comment publicly, said the
regulatory authorities were considering measures to curb microblogging
sites partly because of the potential for political networking. Indeed,
Global Times, an offshoot of the Communist Party’s official newspaper,
People’s Daily, warned in a May editorial that ‘‘the independent
candidates could destroy the current system by soliciting votes on the
Internet.’’ And the 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
was 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 guesthouses 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.’’ Jonathan Ansfield
contributed reporting, and Shi Da, Edy Yin and Mia Li contributed
research.

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