Elections with Chinese Characteristics

Since late May this year, some 30 Chinese citizens have announced their intentions to run for the local People’s Congress elections this year. This candidacy wave has burst into nation-wide enthusiasm, not least because many of them announced their candidacy on Weibo, which means their campaigns will be followed by people throughout China. Prominent intellectuals and figures, including Han Han and Yu Jianrong, have openly declared their support.

This is not the first time that independent candidates have run. Famously, Yao Lifa won a seat in the local People’s Congress of Qianjiang in Hubei in 1998, and lawyer Xu Zhiyong did the same in his Beijing district in 2003. But they are rare cases of success. Already, officials have interpreted the laws to their own advantage, suggesting that certain bureaucratic hurdles need to be overcome for independent candidates. This was what the National People’s Congress Legal Affairs Committee said on 8 June:

In the county and village level People’s Congress elections, only parties, people’s organizations and voters can legally nominate ‘representative candidates’, who will then be confirmed as ‘official representative candidates’ after discussions, consultations or pre-selections. There is no such thing as ‘independent candidates’. ‘Independent candidates’ have no legal basis.

How far these candidates can go remain uncertain, as the Communist Party is applying various tactics to rein them in. Three independent candidates, Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua, all from the city of Xinyu, received various kinds of harassment from the local government ever since they announced their candidacy, and prior to their being disqualified for the election in late June. Another candidate, Shanghai businessman Xia Shang, was visited by the Ministry of State Security this month, and had his two companies selected for tax audit. A prominent candidate, media worker Li Chengping, also had his Internet service to his home cut off earlier this month.

In China, direct elections are restricted at county and township level People’s Congresses. In principle, everyone can run for elections. But in practice, most candidates are nominated by the Communist Party or official election committees. Independent candidates often face many significant hurdles and official interventions which undermine their electoral fortunes. This could range from official denouncements, banning of media reports on local elections, official and quasi-official intimidation and inducements targeted at voters, to manipulation and fraud at the ballot boxes.

Hu Ping, a New-York based democracy advocate, has recently written an article describing the realities of elections with Chinese characteristics. He himself belonged to the candidacy wave which prevailed in early 1980s, a by-gone era of a more relaxed political atmosphere. In 1980, as a philosophy student at Peking University, he was elected as a people’s delegate in China’s first local People’s Congress elections conducted under the then newly-in-force Election law. Sadly, some thirty years later, he still sees little progress in China’s migration towards elections of any real meanings.

Hu Ping: Better Call Them ‘Self-Nominated’ Candidates

Elections for local People’s Congresses in China are approaching. The appearance of “independent candidates” has sparked much heated debates.

The word “independent candidate” originates from elections under a democratic system. It refers to candidates who are not affiliated with any political parties. Democracy, usually described as party politics, is essentially competition for public duties. In order to win elections, you can be an independent candidate, but a better way is to utilize the resources of an organization. Therefore, people with different political stances form different parties, and put up their own candidates. Election then becomes a competition between parties. However, there are also some contestants who do not belong to any parties. We call them independent candidates.

China is a one-party authoritarian state. People are stripped of their rights to form parties and organizations. Therefore, there is no inter-party competition in Chinese elections. In the local level People’s Congress elections, the so-called nominated candidates from parties and people’s organizations are in fact candidates endorsed by the Communist Party. But even the Communist Party thinks that it does not look good if local level People’s Congress elections are tightly controlled. Hence, apart from candidates nominated by the party, a person with the recommendations of ten or more voters can also become a candidate.

According to the Election Law, the number of candidates recommended by a party cannot exceed the number of seats in that district. Furthermore, to ensure that the election is competitive, the number of candidates should exceed the number of seats by one third to double the amount. That is, if there are two seats in a district, there should be three to four candidates. As the party can only put forward at most two candidates, the remaining one or two candidates would have to be recommended by voters. There are nearly one million election districts in the whole of China, and over two million local People’s Congress representatives. Theoretically, there would also be over two million candidates who are nominated by voters.

In some districts, for example Beijing, there are specific regulations which stipulate that party-nominated candidates cannot exceed 20% of the number of seats. In such districts, the election results are usually moderated at a 20:80 ratio. In fact, in the two local People’s Congress elections held in Beijing in 2003 and 2006, party candidates did not get 20% of the seats, while voter-recommended candidates got more than 80%.

If we describe candidates nominated by voters as independent candidates, can we say that independent candidates achieve landslide victories in these elections because the Communist Party got less than 20% of the seats?

The answer is no. This is because the so-called voter-nominated candidates are in fact controlled by the Communist Party. Technically speaking, the government will divide voters into groups, and appoint a leader in each group. The leader will then chair meetings which select candidates, who will then go on and secure the required number of voter recommendations. It goes without saying that these candidates are trusted by the government, and most of them are Communist Party members. For example, in the Beijing local People’s Congress elections in 2003 and 2006, over 70% of elected candidates endorsed by voters are party members.

How about the “independent candidates” that we are all paying attention to? The important thing is not whether they are nominated by voters, but that they volunteer as candidates by themselves, and then secure enough voter nominations. They are neither official candidates, nor being recommended, but are self-nominated. It is on this point that they break the official control of the election, either in public or secret.

In other words, the so-called voter-nominated candidates can be classified into two types: one is being recommended, in fact appointed officially; the other is self-nominated. It is the latter type which is causing the controversy, and which the government is most afraid of.

Lei Tao from the Beijing Academy of Social Science’s Center of Sociology has written a book called The Logic of Participation, which tracks the behavior and participation of Beijing voters in elections. The book discusses the various names for self-nominated candidates: “independent candidates”, “people-nominated candidates”, and “self-nominated candidates”. The author thinks that the description “independent” is only relative to party-nominated candidates; “people-nominated” also fails to describe the nature of these candidates. He insists on using the term “self-nominated candidates”. I think Lei’s conclusion is logical. Let’s call them “self-nominated candidates”.

Of course, this term also has its own problems. It may cause confusions for people outside mainland China: “self-nominated candidates”? Could there be candidates who are not self-nominated? In democratic societies, even party-nominated candidates have to first declare by themselves their intention to stand for the election.

This is a so-called “Chinese characteristic”. In mainland China, most candidates in different levels of People’s Congress are not self-nominated, but recommended by someone else, mostly party leaders. In the eyes of the leaders, self-nomination is a kind of heresy. From this point, we can see how far away Communist China is from real elections.

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0 thoughts on “Elections with Chinese Characteristics”

  1. There seems to be a missing “no” in this sentence/quote: “There is such thing as ‘independent candidates’. ‘Independent candidates’ have no legal basis.”

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  2. Any discussion of the Chinese political system runs the same way:

    A: So China’s a dictatorship, eh?

    B: Well it’s, not that simple, you see, they do have elections and there is more than one party.

    A: What? Why haven’t I heard this?

    B: Because you’re brainwashed by the western media.

    A: Hmmm . . [goes away and studies some more] . . . so actually the other political parties are controlled by the CCP, even to the extent of declaring the purpose of their existence as being to support the CCP, and the elections are a sham because the CCP almost always wins.

    B: Well, it’s not that simple, independent candidates get elected all the time.

    A:Hmmm . . . [goes away and studies more] . . . so actually the CCP uses every trick it has to ensure that independent candidates don’t get elected, and says that they have ‘no basis in law’ for standing for election despite what it says in the constitution, and packs the ballot papers with candidates despite there being laws in place to prevent that.

    B: That’s about it.

    A: So China’s a dictatorship, eh?

    Somethings that’d be interesting to see:

    – I’d love to see an interview with the head of the Revolutionary Committee of the KMT (i.e., Beijing’s puppet KMT party with a 82,000-strong membership). It would be lovely to see them try to explain what the point in the Mainland KMT is nowadays, since they never appear in the press, never influence policy, and the CCP is willing to party-to-party links with the real KMT on Taiwan.

    – An interview with the heads of the China Democratic League and China Association for Promoting Democracy (the CCP’s puppet pro-democracy parties, membership 65,000 and 144,000 respectively) asking him in what way they have ever furthered democracy in China.

    – Similar interviews with the heads of the other puppet parties.

    Meanwhile, the appropriate name for the independent canidates is obvious. They are not ‘self-nominated’, but extra-party – dang wai, just like the early pro-democracy movement in Taiwan.

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  3. The suppression of 3rd party/independent candidates happens all the time in the US. Look at what happens when Ralph Nader and Ron Paul tries to get their names registered in the ballots in some states but was rejected due to some ‘technicality.’

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  4. By the standards you claim that China is undemocratic, the United States is at best equally undemocratic. Third party and independent candidates are stifled all of the time by efforts of the two major parties, especially with propaganda campaigns. I’m not defending the nature of modern China, but I think it’s quite fair to call the US a ‘dictatorship’ if we are to use the standards set out in there article.

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  5. In the year of 2011, is it pure laziness for people who’ve been to China to still use the term “Communist China”? China is about as communist as Obama is white.

    And don’t tell me it’s because the ruling party is called Communist Party. North Korea’s official name has Democratic, People and Republic in it and I ain’t seeing none of you calling it those things.

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  6. @keisaat

    Obama is half white.

    I think we tend to use the word communist because “authoritarian capitalist technocracy with socialist hangover” tends to offend people.

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  7. @Keisaat –

    ” don’t tell me it’s because the ruling party is called Communist Party. North Korea’s official name has Democratic, People and Republic in it and I ain’t seeing none of you calling it those things”

    . . . which ignores the fact that whilst the DPRK is definitely not democratic, China still operates an avowedly Leninist political system (i.e., a “vanguard party” led by “democratic centralism” – meaning a single party state with internal group decision making), even if it has in the main abandoned Marxist economics.

    What do you call a country with a Leninist political system, ruled over by a single party which loudly proclaims itself to be communist? “Communist” seems to be the most fitting name.

    @Benjamin Allen –

    “By the standards you claim that China is undemocratic, the United States is at best equally undemocratic. Third party and independent candidates are stifled all of the time by efforts of the two major parties, especially with propaganda campaigns.”

    Yes, third party candidates rarely win in the US, but this is a consequence of a political system which requires that a party organise in all (or almost all) of the 50 states to be able to make an impact. Where third-party movements have made an impact, one of the two main parties has quickly moved to adopt the positions and policies of the third party (notably the GOPs absorption of the Perot movement and the Tea Party, but also the Democrat’s absorption of La Follette’s Progressive movement) and subsume their organisation within their own.

    At a local level third-party candidates get elected more often at state level – Jesse Ventura being a famous example, the Alaska Independence Party has also scored occasional victories. However, it should also be remembered that both the Democrats and the GOP often adopt different policies at state level than at national level so as to represent local opinion, and this often supresses the development of third-parties that might otherwise arise. The “Dixie-crat” phenomenon whereby the Democrats at national level opposed segregation whilst those at state level in the Southern US supported it, is a quite shameful example of this.

    Is the US system “dictatorial” on this analysis? The answer is no, because parties may still be formed and can get elected. The fact that it is easier for them to align themselves with the lager parties in exchange for policy changes by the two major parties does not disprove this.

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  8. @ FOARP

    No you’re right, its not dictatorial. There’s a difference between a dictatorship and a broken democracy, in fact you can’t technically call China a dictatorship either. But, if you’re talking about which country is more or less democratic then you should also consider the US’s private campaign funding, lobby groups, heavily biased state owned media, PR legions and so on. I think that the US is more democratic than China, but all democracies aren’t made equal. In some cases very democratic nations can be more disastrous than less democratic ones.

    @keisaat again,

    Come to think of it we do call North Korea the DPRK, because that’s its official name

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  9. To Pugster,
    it would be fabulous if citizens in China had difficulty establishing support for a 3rd party…because that would imply that there are already 2 other established ones…which, if my math is correct, is one more than what they actually have at this point.

    Many people like to say that China is on the road to democratization, and like to point to these low level shams/elections as examples. This translation would suggest that those examples are rather hollow.

    I wonder if the CCP is an avid student and admirer of Elliott Ness. This tax evasion business is excellent for eliminating folks that the CCP doesn’t like, for instance Ai Weiwei in recent annals. If it’s good enough to get Al Capone, it seems to be good enough to get these Chinese democracy enthusiasts.

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  10. “Small f” fascism describes China reasonably well — especially when we consider the dominant state role in the economy and the prevailing nationalist creed.

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  11. Will the Govt there ever warn the people about the NEO 2011-2012 that is just a flyby but, will pass within the moons orbit, it is a dwarf planet the size of Texas, and will cause a tidal wave in China, Taiwan, Guam, Philippines, Shanghai, Taipei, and Hong Kong? Xie Xie

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