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.