Mon, Sep 26, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Activists challenge Beijing with election push

Perhaps it’s just a veneer of democracy, but China’s election law in theory permits independent challengers to nominate themselves, and more candidates are putting themselves forward to fight for disadvantaged groups’ rights

By Chris Buckley  /  Reuters, BEIJING

Illustration: Yusha

Hundreds of independent candidates fighting for seats in China’s usually tame local congresses are opening a new front in the nation’s battle over political rights, courting voters on the streets and the Internet despite political controls.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) says the provincial and municipal People’s Congresses are the basis of Chinese-style democracy. Critics, however, say the councils — stacked with party officials, powerless to control budgets and unwilling to challenge policies — are tame chambers used to give a facade of popular acclaim to top-down power.

This year, however, unprecedented numbers of independent candidates are seeking to change that, challenging the much larger slates of CCP-backed candidates, despite a crackdown on dissent and slim chances of winning seats, activists said.

“There are many, many more candidates than before. It’s impossible to give precise numbers, but many more,” said Li Fan (李凡), the head of the World and China Institute, a small, privately funded Beijing group that monitors elections.

“There are two reasons. First, social grievances are deeper than before, so more people want to become congress delegates to press for rights. Second, there is the role of the social media. Microblogs are playing a big role,” Li said.

In elections across China in recent and coming months, Chinese voters choose about 2 million delegates to represent them in local assemblies, according to the National People’s Congress, the national-level parliament.

In some respects, the elections for these bodies are not unlike the government assemblies and councils that run states and cities across the US and other countries. However, the similarities quickly dissolve.

Most voters in China tend to unquestioningly tick the box for the CCP’s candidates, but the election law in theory allows independent challengers to nominate themselves.

In past elections, which happen every five years, a few independent candidates have won spots on local assemblies, which they used to campaign against government abuses and land grabs.

This year’s independent campaigners say they face many barriers to becoming formally accredited, including police harassment, bureaucratic sabotage and many voters’ wariness of risking trouble by endorsing them as candidates. Even if some win that recognition, their hopes of winning seats are slim.

“We need to solve China’s systematic problems, and the key to a breakthrough is elections,” said Zhou Decai (周德才), a farmer-turned-businessman campaigning for a place on a congress in his home county in Henan Province.

“Even if a few get in [to congresses], that won’t change things,” Zhou said in an interview in Beijing, where he said he had been speaking to lawyers and supporters about his plans.

“But the election can expose problems in China’s system, and it’s also a way of putting pressure on local government officials,” said Zhou, a stocky, crew-cut man who has long campaigned over land disputes in his home, Gushi County.

PARADOX

The spread of independent campaigns has underscored the paradox that even as the CCP has sought to deter dissent, new sources of discontent keep welling up, often aided by the spread of the Internet.

The surge of election-inspired activism was the latest sign that a government crackdown, which brought the detention of dozens of dissidents this year, was encountering emboldened opposition, supporters of the movement said.

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