Cai Aimin (蔡愛民) was busily handing out homemade fliers on the streets, campaigning for a seat in the local legislature in Zhengzhou in September when police officers swooped in and dragged him into an unmarked car.
Cai's platform, touted in his handbills, called for exposing corrupt practices by officials and protecting citizens from seizures of their land and other property. The police, he said, did not agree.
"They kept me in a hotel for three days and detained me for another 15 days after that," Cai, a 35-year-old former security guard, said in a telephone interview. "But I'm not afraid of them. What they have done is totally wrong."
In the midst of an election season for local congresses, a tug-of-war is under way across China. On the one side is a communist leadership that for years has promoted a limited version of democracy, allowing direct elections for lower-level, largely powerless legislatures. On the other are social activists demanding a say in local politics.
For now, the authorities seem to hold the upper hand. Cai, who has traveled to Beijing dozens of times in order to seek redress for farmers in his district, is among at least five activists who have tried to run as independent candidates only to be prevented by officials.
One local campaigner against the soaring urban property prices in Shenzhen couldn't get officials to list his name on the ballot. Another in the central city of Wuhan said authorities paid his neighbors to beat him up and confiscate the 6,000 fliers and 200 T-shirts he had printed up for his campaign for a seat in the district congress.
"I want to see freedom and democracy in the mainland," Wen Yan (
Despite the setbacks, the elections underscore a slow shift in China as people, given greater mobility and prosperity by free-market reforms, increasingly challenge the Communist Party's political monopoly.
"The genie of political pluralism is starting to come out of the bottle at the local level and the [party] is trying to stuff it back in," said Bruce Gilley, a China politics expert at Queens University in Canada.
"No doubt the [party] will succeed in threatening and harassing candidates it dislikes off the ballots, but the more significant point here is that it has to do this at all," Gilley said in an e-mail.
Voting for local People's Congresses is taking place countrywide, with some areas having started July 1 and the last areas finishing Dec. 31 next year according to the official Xinhua News Agency. More than 2 million deputies will be elected over the 18-month period, it said.
The elections are strictly monitored by the authorities, with party-controlled committees vetting candidates for the party-dominated congresses.
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