During local level elections held in China, independent candidates garnered a lot of attention using social media. Then the Party struck back.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis

in Hanghzou & Changzhou, China

Hu Jiang Quan is a not so typical candidate, running in a not so typical election. We meet on a rainy afternoon at the gate of his university in Hangzhou, a city just outside of Shanghai in eastern China.

“Sorry,” he says. “I just woke up. Yesterday was my birthday and I got extremely drunk.” The now 21-year-old student of Marketing walks us to the cafeteria. He’s wearing wide, purple pajama pants and a sloppy shirt - a not very typical outfit for a politician facing an election. Hu wants to get a seat in the district parliament as an independent candidate.

For close to 70 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, where the nation’s constitution allows for direct elections. Over two million representatives are elected in two thousand city districts and thirty thousand villages.

Until now, these elections passed with hardly anyone noticing. Candidates and voters alike were vetted by local governments, which used Communist Party guidelines to make their selections.

But this time, it's different. All over the country, hundreds of citizens are running as independent candidates, just like Hu. Using social media, they run campaigns directly aimed at their constituencies. They refuse to obey tradition, choosing direct communication on issues over the dogged path of a slow and uncertain rise within Party ranks.

Even though they’re a tiny group, the independents managed to hit an open nerve in Beijing.


Hu is hungover. That doesn't mean he’s less certain about what he wants. The words just come out a bit slower.

“Even professors at this university don't know who represents them in the local People's Congress,” he says at a table in the canteen of the Zhejiang Economics University. “Nobody seems to care. It's time to get the professors and the twenty thousand students of this university more involved. They should know that they have the right to elect their own representatives. That they even have the right to stand for election themselves. I don't expect to change the system overnight, but we have to start somewhere. If we take small steps at a time, inform ourselves about our rights and act, then sometime in the future we will see a changed China.”

Chinese officials in the Great Hall of the People, Beijing. (C) Remko Tanis

Two hundred kilometers north of Hangzhou, 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 leads the way into a private room in a restaurant far from downtown. Even here he’s on edge. Running for office has given him quite some trouble even before he decided to talk to a foreign journalist about it.

“My wife begs me to quit. The other day we were driving on the expressway. She threatened to open the car door and jump out if I wouldn't promise to stop campaigning right then and there.”

He works at a state owned real estate company. His employer is also pressuring him to quit campaigning.

“Each month it's the same ritual. 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 he is telling me to drop out of the election.''

“There is no room for people with different ideas.

They might destroy our system.”

During previous local elections in China, local media were not allowed to cover the candidates who were running independent from the Communist Party. Nowadays it is impossible to ignore this group because news about them spreads at the speed of light through social media. It leaves 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 Communist Party run newspaper People's Daily. 'People like that might destroy our current system.'

Party leaders emphasize again and again that China will never have a democratic system.

People's Daily itself has the answer for people who after all this still dare to hope. 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: Party leaders can keep anyone off the ballot without reason or opportunity for appeal.

Communist Party delegates on Tiananmen Square, outside the Great Hall of The People in Beijing. (C) Remko Tanis

The authorities are also not too eager to inform either candidates or voters on the exact date of elections. In some cases, they are not announced until just a few days before.

The government of the southern province of Jiangxi has pushed it the furthest to drive home the message that active participation in local elections is legally allowed yet very much unwanted. They forced independent candidates to give up by arresting, physically hurting and intimidating their supporters.

Xu Yan's phone never stops beeping.

He apologizes: “Another message from Liu Ping, who is running as an independent. She says she cannot go on, because now lawyers who were helping her are being harassed as well. She has run out of options to keep running.”

Xu himself, a 27-year-old sales executive, is determined to go on and get elected as an independent in his Hangzhou city district. Not that he doesn’t have problems. The government has threatened his employer with a visit from tax inspectors who will be sure to find whatever it takes to hit the company with a big fine.

“I quit my job to protect the company from further harassment,” says Xu in a coffee bar one floor above an IT store. “Since then, all tax investigations into the company have suddenly stopped, but my family and friends are still being bothered. They get phone calls from strangers who ask questions about me. Every time the caller warns 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 election campaign. But, come on, one plus one equals two.’’

As with all the other independent candidates I met for this story, Xu emphasizes he is not campaigning against the Communist Party as such.

Sign on Tiananmen Square during a Communist Party Congress in Beijing. (C) Remko Tanis

“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.”

Early in his campaign, he went door to door to introduce himself to the people in his district. Officials wasted no time in telling him to stop.

Now Xu posts weekly videos to get his platform across. You have to sit through a KFC-commercial first, but then Xu starts explaining his platform.

“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.”

This feature has been published by Dutch magazine Elsevier.

None of the independent candidates call for a radical and immediate end to the Communist Party's decades old grip on power. That doesn’t stop that Party to come down on them as if it is being threatened to its very core.

Like when twelve independent candidates wanted to get together on in the Beijing house of one of them, the 65-year old Wang Xiuzhen. They found police and guards and 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 reasons to run: 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 campaigning for office because she wants the local government to do a better job cleaning rubbish from the streets. Liu Ping (47) in Jiangxi wants to get into government to get local employers to respect the existing labor laws.

He Peng wonders if he can keep up the fight.

“It means risking everything,” he says in the Changzhou restaurant’s private room. “If one message is clear from those cups of tea with my boss it is this: if I continue running, I will lose 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?

I feel sorry for many Chinese, including my wife and friends. They know something is wrong in China, but they choose to do nothing. 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.”