Independent candidates test China's election experiment

All candidates are closely vetted by Communist Party officials in China's tightly-controlled political system.

Story highlights

  • Urban districts all over China elect delegates to their local People's Congress
  • This is the lowest level of China's multi-tiered parliamentary system
  • There are more than 100 people who have come forward as independent candidates
  • Emergence of independent candidates is unsettling for Beijing officials
Elections are underway in China. Not for the country's presidency but for "Renmin Daibiao," or the National People's Representatives Congress.
Over the next few months, electorates in townships and urban districts all over the country will elect delegates to their local People's Congress, the lowest level of China's multi-tiered parliamentary system.
Conducted every five years, this is the only time citizens can directly vote for their legislators.
On paper, anyone can seek a seat by collecting signatures of at least 10 constituents.
But in China's tightly-controlled political system, all candidates are closely vetted by Communist Party officials. Elections are carefully choreographed.
Still, there are more than 100 people who have come forward as independent candidates.
Among them is Li Chengpeng, who has declared his candidacy on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.
A popular writer and social commentator, Li boasts of more than three million Weibo followers.
"With so many people following me, my name is ranked very high (on Weibo) and through my postings people can better understand my proposals," Li told CNN.
A native of Chengdu in Sichuan province, Li proposes bread-and-butter solutions for his constituents: how to improve use of school buses so pupils can avoid traffic jams; how to help university graduates find jobs and how to ensure prompt medical care for senior citizens.
"My purpose of running in the election is not to rebel or overthrow the government," he said. "That will be too naïve."
To avoid trouble with the police, Li said he will turn down any offers of financial donations and will avoid organizing street demonstrations.
The charismatic writer says most of his friends support him, but his wife remains worried and does not understand why he wishes to run.
"She thinks that we already enjoy a relatively good life—houses, cars, a lovely son," he explained. "She lives by the philosophy that we need not seek a pear tree since we already sit under the apple tree. But my view is, why not?
"There is so much injustice in China."
According to Li Fan, a long-time observer of grassroots elections in China, "it is the conflict that is driving so many activists and lawyers to run in these elections.
"Many people think they can make their voices heard and supervise the government by being candidates."
But the emergence of independent candidates is unsettling for Beijing officials.
Last June, an unnamed official of the National People's Congress, the top-level legislature, told state-run Xinhua that running as an independent had "no legal basis."
Few, if any, of these independent candidates are expected to get elected.
"Some of the 100 or so independent candidates have been intimidated by local officials, six have pulled out, which shows that the elections have not been going well so far," said Li Fan, who runs the World and China Institute, a think-tank in Beijing.
Nevertheless, political analysts say their participation is encouraging. "It shows that a civil society is taking root in China, although gradually," explained Wenran Jiang, political science professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.
"More people are asserting their constitutional rights rather than just living in the current situation largely dominated by the Communist Party."
Every election in China, he says, is an experiment and a glacial process.
China has been holding similar grassroots elections for years.
I remember observing one in 1980, when I was a senior at Peking University. For days, I joined campaign rallies on campus organized by student leaders who sought seats as deputies to a local legislature.
Inside a packed hall, we listened to impassioned speeches and Q&A sessions featuring candidates who extemporaneously answered questions from the audience. They debated on current affairs and national issues, akin to campaign debates in the United States and other countries.
But such political activism has caused jitters in the Chinese leadership. Over the years, experts say, Chinese leaders have tried to exclude independent candidates from local elections -- with much success.
Still, grassroots elections go on because they serve as a social safety-valve. Wenfang Tang, political science professor at Ohio University, noted that Beijing is now caught in a bind between keeping its political monopoly and coping with increasing public demand for political participation.
"The Chinese leaders know very well that people need to vent their dissatisfaction," he said. "It's certainly better to allow people to participate in elections than in protests."
In recent months, China has seen a spate of local disturbances in different regions of the country, including mass protests against land grabs, environmental pollution, and abusive behavior of officials and their children.
Last August, thousands of residents in the northeastern city of Dalian demonstrated against the building of the Fujia chemical plant to air their environmental and health concerns. The city government ordered the suspension of its construction.
Analysts say grassroots elections, even if faulty, are necessary baby steps that could allow public participation and preempt violent social unrest.
If allowed to evolve, Wenran Jiang opined, "China may well move in the direction of democracy with Chinese characteristics. If in one or two generations China can get where Singapore is today, that will be significant progress."
Independent candidate Li Chengpeng is philosophical about his seemingly quixotic quest.
"Even if only one of us gets elected, that's progress."