Chinese Democracy and Independent Candidates
There's been a recent push by a number of Chinese to establish grass-roots campaigns for local government, the only form of government in which representation is elected, in theory, by popular vote. This isn't the first time we've seen independents trying to run for office in China, but it does come at a particularly tense moment in China's history.
On the first of July, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate its 90th anniversary, and it isn't going to stand for any embarrassment during the festivities. Li Chanchung, the head of the Party's propaganda machine, has in no uncertain terms told Chinese media to be on their best behavior, “singing the main theme of the goodness of the CCP, the goodness of socialism, the goodness of economic reform and opening, the goodness of our Great Mother Country.” In spite of this decree, there have been particularly damning revelations about corruption in the last few months, including the revelation that over the past twenty years, close to 18,000 officials have fled China with around 125 billion dollars embezzled from the central government, mass protests in Lichuan caused by the murder of an official who was fighting corruption, and rumblings that China's newest anti-corruption websites might be harmonized.
These public losses of face put unusual pressure on Beijing with regards to independent candidacies. On the one hand, grassroots opposition to single party rule is itself a fiasco: a public acknowledgment of the systemic problems that the central government must continue to tolerate if its totalitarian rule is to function. On the other hand, silencing these independent candidates by framing them or contorting to the law to ban them from running risks international condemnation and more vocal domestic dissatisfaction.
China Digital Times has recently translated material from two of the independent candidates: Cao Tian, who is running for mayor of Zhengzhou, and Li Chengpeng, who is running for the local People's Congress in Chengdu. These candidates are navigating the dangerous game of running for political office in markedly different ways.
Cao Tian is taking the safer route. He recently blogged a supposed conversation with unnamed local official who was attempting to dissuade him from running. Responding to the official's reminder that the National People's Congress “already said that you so-called independent candidates lack a legal ground [for running for office],” Cao said:
The low quality of the spokesperson for the Commission on Legislative Affairs of the National People’s Congress and his lack of legal knowledge have already sparked universal outrage. Having independent candidates is not only the pattern by which citizens elected candidates in the past, and [not only] does it accord with the strictures of election law—it exactly epitomizes the essence of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China!
Notice that Cao places the source of contention not between the independent candidates and the central government, but rather on the specific spokesperson. In so doing, he allows the government some leeway in deciding how to respond to him, and gives them a scapegoat should they decide that back pedaling will better serve their interests.
Li Chengpeng, on the other hand, is more intense and uncompromising in his rhetoric. In his response to an editorial by the Global Times (a puppet newspaper for the Party) telling the independents to “go back to reality” and downplaying their importance, he uses a running image of a great, invisible “Wall” that runs around his village, perhaps an allusion to the Great Firewall. But his rhetoric becomes even sharper and clearer when he says that “the only thing that proves you really are a Chinese citizen is the ballots that you fill out” and makes mention of some of the most shocking instances of corrupt officials getting away with murder (literally), stamping down on worker's rights, and displacing rural peoples without compensation. Li is risking a great deal with these straightforward references to embarrassing incidents that have already been deemed extremely taboo for public discussion.
While there is some hope that international recognition of these candidates in Western news sources like the Wall Street Journal may dissuade Beijing from disappearing these problematic newcomers, such recognition was not enough to protect internationally famous artist Ai Weiwei.
But even if the central government chooses not to react violently to these candidacies, there are so many more subtle ways that they could sabotage them. If the government allows free elections to go ahead, there's no reason that they couldn't fix the results. Even if they do not fix the results, these independents will be surrounded by corrupt officials who will have everything to gain by undermining their work. And even if the government doesn't opt for subtlety at all, Beijing is nothing if not patient in its revenge. Call me a cynic, but I don't think Beijing is going to open its doors to democracy just because of increasing publicity; to do so would be a profound divergence from their handling of similar issues in the past.
Cynicism or no, this push for democracy is the closest thing to a real Jasmine Revolution we've seen in China.
Christopher Michael Luna is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist