Changing China: one vote, one person

Over the past few weeks, one of the hottest issues on China’s Internet — and, more cautiously, in the traditional media — has been the participation of “ordinary citizens” from a range of backgrounds (lawyers, writers, activists, laid-off workers, students) in direct elections for local people’s congresses across China. The issue has continued to build on domestic social media platforms like Sina Weibo, where users are trading information on local candidates and pointing others to key materials, such as manuals on rights and procedures for election candidates.

The story really began back in late April, when a laid-off female worker named Liu Ping (刘萍) announced her candidacy for a district people’s congress in Jiangxi’s Xinyu City (新馀). Liu Ping told the BBC (Chinese) that she had been warned by local police, who said campaigning for office was against the law. Liu’s case drew the attention of a number of influential scholars and journalists, including Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor and CMP fellow Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), who issued appeals through their own microblogs to draw broader support for Liu and make the public more aware of their political rights. The second wave of interest in local people’s congress elections came when Li Chengpeng (李承鹏), a prominent Chinese author, announced his plans in late May to take part in elections in Chengdu.

This is a fascinating story about growing interest in political participation in China, about real engagement, and about how social media in particular are galvanizing participation to the extent it is possible under the current political system. Unfortunately, this issue has gotten virtually no attention outside China. Why? The notable exception is a piece by Calum McCleod in USA Today, in which he notes that Li Chengpeng’s candidacy has received backing from celebrity blogger Han Han and film director Feng Xiaogang.

No, this is not a political seismic shift, but it is far less ethereal than, for example, the so-called Jasmine protests in China were back in February. And I hope everyone can agree that the story is far more relevant to readers anywhere than the story of a Chinese teen who sold his kidney for an iPad.

What does the election of “independent” candidates mean in a contemporary Chinese context? Well, to begin with, the idea is based in China’s Constitution, which states in Article 34:

All citizens of the People’s Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of nationality, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status, or length of residence, except persons deprived of political rights according to law.

Stand for election where, exactly? Positions for local people’s congresses in villages and city districts are (theoretically, at least) open for direct election, which means anyone meeting these basic requirements can (theoretically) become a candidate.

In practice, people’s congress representatives at the local level are often appointed by Party leaders, and they have little real power to influence local political decisions. Elections are supervised by higher government authorities, so there is ample opportunity for manipulation of the results. Speak to most Chinese about what they know about local elections, and you’ll get incredulous looks. Who gave you the knuckle-brained idea there is such a thing in China? But local citizen candidates have stood successfully in elections before, as this user on Sina Weibo, called “Panama Straw Hat” (巴拿马草帽), noted on June 4th: “I also voted before in university, and selected a teacher from my department. Later, when I went to the government office to handle some stuff, this teacher said, if they have a bad attitude you tell me. People’s Congress representatives can exercise their right of supervision. I’ve kept and treasured my ballot receipt ever since.”

It’s easy to argue that these political rights are worth less than the paper they are written on — not unlike the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression in Article 35, which is up against a massive media control regime.

Still, even granting that this is not a sea change, even granting that there are massive institutional hurdles to real political participation in China, can’t we recognize that this recent outpouring of interest in the idea of “independent” people’s congress candidacy is an interesting and important sign of growing political consciousness among Chinese?

Chinese journalists, academics, lawyers and internet users have hammered home the point over the past couple of weeks that one major problems historically has been that few Chinese are aware of the constitutional rights they ostensibly do have. Fewer still have ever tested them. What we’ve seen over the past week is the determination to do exactly that. And how this will unfold is certainly a story worth watching.

In a post to his blog at Sina.com — pushed, of course, through his microblog — CMP fellow and veteran investigative reporter Wang Keqin (王克勤) last week encouraged rights petitioners across China to become candidates for local people’s congress positions. His post bore the headline: “Calling on the Masses of Petitioners to Participate in Elections for People’s Congresses.” He wrote: Petitioners and rights defenders from all areas of the country should learn from the example of Jiangxi petitioner Liu Ping (刘萍). Going through the bitter process of petitioning isn’t as good as participating in politics yourself, safeguarding your interests as well as those of the public.”

One user responded enthusiastically to Wang Keqin’s call, saying: “This is a great suggestion! A great suggestion!”

Another affirmed the organizational power of the microblog (or “weibo”), saying petitioners and others with rights complaints should get connected: “First, let them get on the Weibo,” they said.

Another user asked a pertinent technical question in a country where millions of workers are on the move: “What if your registration papers are for somewhere else, can you still take part [as a candidate]?”

“This is very constructive,” said one user. “This is not very constructive,” said another.

Still others had a sense of humor about their own ambitions, suggesting their constitutional rights shouldn’t be taken at face value: “So, to become state president what kind of qualifications do you need? How can you get elected to that position? Can all Chinese citizens present themselves as candidates?”

As I suggested above, one of the most interesting aspects of this story has been the wave of interest in the mechanics of local people’s congress elections, on understanding one’s rights and acting on them. There has been a flurried sharing of relevant information.

On May 27, Caixin Media posted a fairly detailed rundown of the relevant rights and issues, explaining for example the concepts of “direct” and “indirect” election, how elections work at various administrative levels, etcetera. The post is still live, despite widespread reports among Chinese journalists on June 2 — again, through domestic microblog platforms — that a ban had already been issued from the Central Propaganda Department prohibiting traditional media from reporting on the participation of ordinary citizens in people’s congress elections.

In another act of media courage — we’ve seen quite a few such acts lately, despite the tightening climate — The Beijing News ran a full page in its June 4 edition on how to take part in people’s congress elections, what citizens’ rights are, etcetera.

Here is an image of the page at The Beijing News:

The section headers read:

1. Who has the right to stand in elections for [people's congress] representatives?
2. How do you register to become a candidate?
3. How do those without local household registrations [hukou] take part?
4. How do you handle disputes over eligibility for candidacy?
5. How do you become a candidate for [people's congress] representative?
6. How do you nominate and promote a candidate?
7. How do elections work and [how are] candidates chosen?
8. How do you impeach representatives not upholding their duty?

I will stop far, far short of saying that this is political awakening, folks. But the next time I see a story about runaway materialism in China, and how the present generation worships Gucci and eschews politics — those always seem to be an easy sell to those editors back in New York and London, eh? — I’ll be digging this story out again.

5 Comments to “Changing China: one vote, one person”

  1. Tom Hancock says:

    Hey, a little self-promotion: Caixin has a new podcast on the independent candidates.
    http://english.caing.com/2011-06-10/100268213.html

  2. gregorylent says:

    it begins. it will grow.

  3. Adam Minter says:

    Hi David -
    Great column on a very, very important issue. However, one small correction: USA Today wasn’t the only outlet covering the issue. This Bloomberg column (http://bloom.bg/iFYMLy) devotes its second half to the issue, and concludes with a lengthy quote from Li Chengpeng.

    See you in the scrap yards!

  4. Vam says:

    Hmm actually on that last note about the younger generation being only into shoes etc, i wonder if there is a particular generation taking up the local political cause more than others. . .

  5. Great article, I completely agree. This is important, much more than the so-called Jazmine Revolution, which occupied dozens of pages on the Western press. It is amazing the power that some people are getting from the Internet, especially from Sina Weibo. The case of Yu Jianrong, who is supporting all kinds of social movements, is spectacular.

    As you say, what´s really amazing is this new political awake. People want to know more about their laws and their rights. In his blog, Han Han reproduced a text written by Xu Zhiyong and others where they explain how the whole system works. http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4701280b010183ny.html

    Let´s keep following this elections and see what happens in some months.

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