During the first supposedly free, local level elections held in Weibo-era China, non-Communist Party candidates were able to garner huge attention using the online messaging platform. Then the Party struck back.
by REMKO TANIS
in HANGZHOU, Zhejiang, China
and CHANGZHOU, Jiangsu, China
Hu Jiang Quan doesn't look like your average politician who is running for office. He wears wide, purple pajama pants and a t-shirt when he introduces himself on a rainy afternoon at the gate of his university in Hangzhou, a city in eastern China.
,,Sorry'', he says. ,,I just woke up two hours ago. Yesterday was my birthday and I got extremely drunk.''
The 21-year old student of Marketing is a not so typical candidate running in a not so typical election. He is aiming for a seat in the parliament of the university district of Hangzhou.
For 62 years now, China is ruled by a Communist Party with an iron stronghold on power. It is only at the lowest levels of government, city districts and villages, that Chinese can elect who represents them. This happens through direct elections which are held every five years. From now until October next year, over two million representatives will be elected in two thousand city districts and thirty thousand villages.
Until now, these elections passed quietly. Candidates and voters alike were appointed by the local governments, which adhered to the Party line in their selections.
But this time, it's different. Hundreds of Chinese citizens are running as independent candidates, just like Hu. Instead of following the traditional route by slowly rising within the ranks of the Party, they use the power of microblogs to reach out to voters.
During previous elections microblogs didn't yet exis. Just five years ago the internet was not at all as widespread in Chinese society as it is today.
Even though these independent candidates are relatively few in number, they managed to hit an open nerve in Beijing.
Hu is hungover, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know what he wants. ,,Even professors at this university don't know who represents them in the local People's Congress'', he says, sitting at a table in the canteen of the Zhejiang Economics University. ,,Nobody seems to care. I think it's time to get the professors and the twenty thousand students of this university more involved. They should be aware of the fact that they have the right to elect their own representatives. They even have the right to stand for election themselves. To be sure, I don't expect to change the system by running, but we all have to start somewhere. If we take small steps at a time, sometime in the future we will see a changed China.''
Two hundred kilometers to the north, in the city of Changzhou, He Peng (28) shares Hu's hopes. He is one of the most popular independent candidates in Jiangsu province. ,,Our government is worse than a gang of hooligans'', He says. ,,At least hooligans have some code of honor amongst themselves. The Chinese government does not. It does whatever it pleases. That's why we as ordinary citizens have to start infiltrating in government through these elections, even though it is only at the lowest level for now. By doing this, we might be able to bring control over China back to the people in the future.''
He tells of his aspirations in a private room in a restaurant. Running for office has given him quite some trouble as is.
,,My wife begs me to quit. The other day we were driving on the expressway when she threatened to open the car door and jump out if I wouldn't promise to stop campaigning right then and there. Since I started running last June, my employer is also putting me under a lot of pressure.'' He works at a state owned real estate company.
,,Each month it's the same ritual,'' He continues. ,,My boss calls me into his office. He offers me a seat, never looses his friendly smile and gives me a cup of tea. Then he will ask how I'm doing, what things are keeping me busy and if I make sure to get well rested in my time off work. It all happens in this very indirect, very Chinese way of doing things. He's polite, never straight forward, yet we both know extremely well what he is asking of me: to drop out of the election.''
During the previous local elections in China, five years ago, media were not allowed to cover the candidates who were running independent from the Communist Party. This time around, it is impossible to ignore this group because the news about them is being spread at the speed of light through Weibo, the most popular microblog service in China. It leaves the traditional, state controlled media with no other choice than to start a counter attack against the independent candidates.
'China is a one party state where there is no room for candidates with different ideas', wrote the Global Times, a populist paper published by the Party's People's Daily newspaper. 'People like that might destroy our current system'.
Wu Bangguo, the chairman of the National People's Congress and the official number two in the hierarchy of the national government, after president Hu Jintao, recently emphasized his view that China will never have a democratic system.
Party mouthpiece People's Daily destroys any splinter of hope that anyone might still have. Yes, the paper writes, the constitution grants every citizen 18 years of age and older the right to run for office. But, adds the editor: 'Before they can run, candidates should follow the correct procedures to be nominated as a candidate to be candidate. Next, they have to be officially recognized as a candidate to be candidate before they can be an actual candidate'.
In other words: there are plenty of opportunities to keep someone off the ballot using these vague qualifications which are not up for debate.
The authorities are also not too eager to inform both candidates and voters on the exact date of the elections. It is not uncommon to wait until a few days before to announce the date, an effort to frustrate any tiny part of a democratic process that might still be left.
The government of the southern province of Jiangxi has for now pushed the limit the furthest. Authorities there managed to get independent candidate Liu Ping to give up the race by arresting, hurting and intimidating her supporters.
Xu Yan's cell phone seems to never stop beeping. ,,Another message from Liu Ping'', the 27-year-old independent candidate in Hangzhou says apologetic. ,,She says everything is under control now, but she cannot go on. The lawyers who were helping her to get on the ballot are being harassed as well. They have run out of options.''
Xu's campaign is still running, but he has problems as well. His employer, an advertising agency, has been given a rough time by the government with threats that fiscal inspectors will pay a visit and will without doubt find some abnormalities in the company's books.
,,I quit my job to protect the company from further harassment'', says Xu in a coffee bar in the district where he is running for office. ,,All investigations into the company have suddenly stopped, but my family and friends are still being bothered. They will get phone calls from strangers who ask questions about me. Every time the caller will warn something bad might happen if I don't quit the race. It's always anonymous, so it is difficult to prove a direct relation between these phone calls and my position as an independent candidate. But one plus one equals two.''
Xu continues: ,,I am not opposed to the Party at all. I am running as an independent, because I feel local people should fill the seats in the local People's Congress, representing a local interest instead of their own Party careers. I want the government to build more affordable homes and to better inform its citizens. We have the right to check what the authorities are doing, but currently we are being denied that right. Even with everyday topics, like the number of parking spaces in the streets or how many parks we should have in the district, ordinary citizens have no say whatsoever.''
Xu publishes a weekly online video message. You have to sit through a KFC-commercial before you can see it, but then he starts explaining his platform. Before, he went door to door to introduce himself to the constituency. He had to suspend campaigning in the streets after pressure from higher up.
None of the independent candidates seem to actively campaign against the Communist Party. None of them call for a radical and immediate end to the Party's decades old grip on power. Yet that Party reacts to the candidates as if its position is being threatened directly.
Twelve independent candidates wanted to get together on 21 September in the Beijing house of one of them, the 65-year old Wang Xiuzhen. They found police and guards and, absurd, a dozen old ladies on their way. They were 'coincidentally' blocking the small alley towards Wang's front door, making it impossible for the group to convene in the house.
,,Disgusting'', is how candidate Zhang Wei (55) qualifies the government tactics. She doesn't understand what the authorities are afraid of. ,,We are running for office to provide normal folks with a voice, to get their everyday problems under the attention of the authorities. That's all.''
Zhang's platform with which she hopes to win the election: it has to be made easier to switch energy provider and there should be better care for elderly people who are lonely.
Another candidate, Yang Lingyun (40), is running because she wants the local government to do a better job cleaning rubbish from the streets. Liu Ping (47) in Jiangxi was campaigning to get local employers to respect the existing labor laws.
He Peng from Changzhou wonders out loud if he can keep up his fight. ,,It means risking everything. If one message is clear from those cups of tea with my boss it is this: if I continue running, I will loose my job and no employer in town will hire me ever again. My wife is pregnant. How am I supposed to care for my family if I'm unemployed?''
He continues: ,,I feel sorry for many Chinese, including my wife and friends. They know something is wrong in China, but they choose to do nothing. The elections in this province are not until next year. I am not sure if I can keep fighting the increasing pressure to drop out. Maybe I will quit. I really don't feel like drinking another cup of tea with my boss.''