This article was first published in ChinaChange web site on October 22, 2016
“Participation is the simplest, most direct, most realistic, and most effective political action.” — Yao Lifa, 2016
“Actually, the result is not what is most important. What’s most important is to take part. I hope that my participation will tell everyone: Believe in our laws, believe in the progress of this era. Please believe that we have a genuine right to vote.” — Xu Zhiyong, 2003
This year, 2016, is an election year in China: every five years, Chinese citizens elect their people’s representatives (PR), and the vote is on November 15. In Beijing, over 70 people have declared that they are taking part in the elections as “independents,” candidates not recommended by the Party or Party-controlled organizations. On October 14, 18 Beijing residents issued a statement:
….As long-time and grassroots residents, we know very well how difficult it is to communicate with our government, the People’s Congress, the courts, and the Procuratorate. We do whatever we can to locate and talk to our People’s Representatives, but to no avail. … As the district- and county-level election for People’s Congress is getting underway, we have a strong desire to be People’s Representatives! We will make sure that everyone — neighbors, the old and the young — can talk to us anytime. We are willing to speak for you and serve you. Please cast your votes for us, giving us the opportunity to sincerely represent your interests and fulfill our duty.
On October 17, another 32 Beijing residents announced their candidacy for PR, and made a similar promise: They will make sure every voter knows who they are and how to reach them with their problems, and as their representatives, they will monitor the government and its functions. As of last Thursday, the number has grown to 54.
In Shanghai, the renowned rights defender Feng Zhenghu posted an open letter to the voters of his constituency on October 5, announcing his candidacy for PR. He promises to “defend the Constitution, defend the implementation of law in the constituency, and defend the civil rights of constituents.” He said he is “participating in the political process for the sake of the people,” and he asked the residents not to give up their right to vote.
China Change spoke to Mr. He Depu, one of the 70 or so independent candidates in Beijing, on Friday. He said, any citizen has the right to vote and the right to be elected, and he or she only needs the recommendation of ten voters to register as a candidate. But in reality, there are many hurdles for candidates not recommended by the Communist Party, or by an organization (which is still controlled by the Party), to be selected as an official candidate. In addition, he said, the government has internal instructions to limit and exclude ordinary citizens from taking part.
Mr. He said that the first time he took part in the People’s Representative elections was in the fall of 1980, when he was a young worker in a factory in Beijing. “According to my experience in competing for the District PR in 1980,” he wrote in an article a few years ago, “the candidates recommended by ordinary citizens had the same chance as the candidates recommended by the political parties and organizations in the first round of selection. But the problem is, when it gets to the process of choosing the official candidates from the initial pool of candidates, which lasted only about 10 days, the current law and rules are stacked heavily against the independent candidates.”
Indeed, the Chinese government makes its attitude towards citizens trying to compete for PR seats very clear by harassing them and sometimes throwing them in jail. Last week, police in Beijing prevented independent candidate Ye Jinghuan* from being interviewed by Japanese journalists. In Jiangxi province, independent candidate Yang Wei was taken away by security guards when he went to the local People’s Congress to get a candidate recommendation form, and later given a 10-day administrative detention. In Hunan, dissident Guan Guilin has been detained for “disrupting an election” after he attempted to register as an independent candidate in his township in September.
This June in Yongjing county, Gans Province, the human rights defender Qu Mingxue and a number of others were detained for over a month after they recommended a number of independent candidates. On October 16, the netease blog “China Election Observation” by Yao Lifa, an expert on elections in China and former People’s Representative in Qianjiang, Hubei Province (湖北潜江), was erased. It has been a platform that Yao has been using to publicize and promote grassroots elections in China for years. His recent “Open Letter to Voters Nationwide,” in which he explained the 19 rights citizens have with regard to elections, and outlined details of election procedures, was also purged from domestic websites.
In 2011, the year the last PR elections were held, the 13 independent candidates were all harassed, surveilled, summoned to speak with police, and even abducted following the announcement of their candidacy. They held a few campaign events in the beginning that were tightly controlled by police, but all the rest were disrupted by the authorities or unable to be held because the candidates had been detained in some manner. Of the 13, only Han Ying, an NGO worker in Haidian District, was able to enter the primary election (the process between being nominated and becoming a formal candidate). Han Ying told the media that she had “been coercively told to drop out of the race,” and that her phone had been stolen, she’d been “illegally searched, illegally detained, subjected to forced interrogations through the night,” and had her freedom so restricted that she “simply couldn’t do anything.” In the fall of 2014, Han Ying was detained for several months for openly supporting the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong.
In 2011 another independent candidate from Haidian District, the leader of the New Citizens Movement, Xu Zhiyong, sought to extend his term as a People’s Representative. Students who supported him sent text messages telling him that they were pressured by the university authorities to instead support the university president. Xu Zhiyong implored his supporters to, on the day of the election, directly write his name on the ballot in the “other candidate” column. Xu was arrested and sentenced to four years imprisonment in 2013 for his support for educational equality and calling for officials to make public their personal assets.
Liu Ping from Jiangxi Province was detained and tortured for declaring her independent candidacy; in 2014 she was sentenced to six and a half years imprisonment for her involvement in the New Citizens Movement.
Sun Wenguang, a retired professor from Shandong University, has participated in People’s Representative elections three times as an independent candidate. He recently spoke to Radio Free Asia: “Why do the authorities so fear independent candidates? One reason is because the regime is a one-party dictatorship, and people standing up to participate in elections is seen as a challenge. The other is that those who act as independent candidates will definitely represent views that aren’t in line with the Communist Party’s. They might criticize the authorities, or go around speaking to crowds, place posters, and represent their political views — and this isn’t allowed.”
On Wednesday October 19, about 30 independent candidates from Beijing gathered in the garden outside the Beijing Municipal Government headquarters, spreading awareness about election law and procedure, and discussing their election tactics. He Depu, who will be taken away from Beijing by police to “travel” until October 28, told China Change that those participating in elections this year are people with a strong sense of civic responsibility. They’re enthusiastic about serving voters, and they dare to face off against the government’s pressure.
Mr. He added: “We don’t know who our People’s Representatives are, and we don’t know what they’re doing. So our undertaking is very basic: if we’re elected, we’ll let all voters know who we are, and we’ll truly represent their interests.”
Starting October 24, candidates from the group of 18 will be campaigning in front of their neighborhood committees. Many of them have been visited by police.
*Ye Jinghuan is the author of a memoir titled “A Worthwhile Trip—A Documentation of Beijing Reeducation-through-Labor Dispatch Center.” China Change has a translation of Teng Biao’s preface to it – “To Remember Is to Resist.”