No Short Supply of Independent Candidates in Chinese Local People’s Congresses

作者:Jiang Xun 发表时间:2011-12-19 11:48:22

Asia Weekly (亚洲周刊), October 9, 2011

Local People"s Congress (LPC) elections are underway all over Chinese cities and provinces, elections that will select over two million LPC deputies by direct election. There will be more "independent candidates" than Chinese Communist Party (CCP) anointed ones. It is estimated there will be several hundred thousand of them, which will be a focus of the elections. Independent candidates include many civil rights activists, lawyers, and media personalities who are not afraid to challenge authority to become democratic trailblazers. They face all kinds of oppression by the government and the pressure is so large that some independent candidates have withdrawn. New media outlets such as Sina Weibo have become important channels for these independent candidates to communicate with voters.

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The 100th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution is around the corner. Since then, Chinese historical development has always revolved around social reform, democracy and republicanism. Right now, China is carrying out LPC elections which are inundated by thousands of independent candidates. What used to be a spoils system suddenly gives people something to look forward to. Independent candidates are in no short supply. When they lose they try again and manifest the reform and republicanism spirit.

LPC elections take place every five years, with this round taking place in 2011 and 2012. According to a directive from the Standing Committee of the National People"s Congress (NPC), general elections in provinces, districts, counties and townships will take place between July 1, 2011 and Dec 31, 2012. Jiangxi, Shanxi, Guangxi, Shaanxi and Xinjiang provinces have already completed elections. Guangzhou of Guangdong Province and Wuhan of Hubei Province completed elections in September. Elections in Tianjin Municipality occurred on November 1 and Beijing Municipality on the November 8 while elections occurred in Shanghai Municipality on November 16.

According to law, People’s Congress deputies are nominated by one of the following three manners: by a political party; by certain people’s organizations; or joint nomination by 10 or more voters. Since the CCP rules, all candidates were basically political party nominated. Based on the international convention and common usage in China, a candidate that is jointly recommended by 10 or more voters is known as an “independent candidate.” In 2003 election, they were briefly referred to as “self-nominated” candidates but the term was later dropped. It might be more fitting to refer to candidates nominated by ten or more voters as “candidates jointly recommended by voters” or “independent candidates.” These terms better reflect the status of the candidates.

Among this year’s independent candidates, Li Chengpeng of Chengdu is undoubtedly the most famous. In May 2011, the Beijing scholar Yu Jiangrong referred to Li Chengpeng as an “it intellectual” and “immensely popular opinion leader.” Li decided to run for LPC in Chengdu where his residency lies. Li Chengpeng immediately announced through Sina Weibo that he planned to “Speak on behalf of constituents, to monitor government and advance society.” As an independent candidate, he was one of the first to declare candidacy and drew a lot of attention. On September 26, Li Chengpeng told Asia Weekly that he ran because he wanted to serve his community, especially children and senior citizens. There was rumor that he had withdrawn and he clarified that it was absolutely not true; it was just that his campaign work had not yet started in Chengdu.

Li Chengpeng, 43 years old, was once a sports reporter. He currently is a writer of bestselling novels such as “The Inside Story of Chinese Soccer” and “Li Kele’s Story of Resisting Forced Demolition.” His books tend to create headlines. This renowned Chinese online opinion leader is known for his scathing writing. He has three million Sina Weibo followers and is considered a “most influential blogger” and “top Chinese social commentator.” His friends call him Big Eye Li because he has big eyes and keeps an eye on social issues. He, together with Yu Jianrong and Xue Manzi initiated the Rescuing Abducted Children Campaign on Sina Weibo to save child beggars.

Li recently experienced an incident through which he showed that he holds himself to a higher standard than others. Netizens said “Big Eye Li manifests the color of independent candidates” and “We catch a glimpse of the hope of the future of Chinese civil society.” On Aug 5th, there was a story on Sina Weibo which reported Li Chengpeng served as spokesperson of a real estate project 200 kilometers from Chengdu built on land from forcibly removed residents. Li detests forced demolition. In fact, his full-length novel “Li Kele’s Story of Resisting Forced Demolition” condemns forced demolition. When he announced that he would run for LPC deputy as an independent candidate it was rather sensational. After investigation by various lawyers, it was confirmed that the land was acquired fairly by the developer.

Li Chengpeng immediately responded via Sina Weibo. At that time, he wasn’t able to immediately confirm whether that corporation was involved in forced abolition. But Li Chengpeng said to run in an LPC election one has to be clean. “I hate forced abolition. I have to be accountable to such a question.” He apologized three times in five minutes. “As a public figure, not knowing is not an excuse. I am working on refunding or donating the money.” Two days later, he gave the money, $50,000 RMB (about $7,300 USD) away to the Deng Fei Free Lunch charity project, which feeds hungry children.

As a matter of fact, Li Chengpeng never formally acted as the spokesperson for this real estate developer. The developer only sponsored the sportswear of his son, a tennis player. The amount of sponsorship was small. It was more goodwill in nature, which came to 50,000 RMB in total. Li Chengpeng believed that the endorsement deal was a good incentive for young athletes. The first person Li Na thanked when she won the Australian Open was her sponsor. Actually, the endorsement from this corporation had long expired. Li Chengpeng said, “Every citizen has the right to monitor others, especially public figures dealing with public affairs. In a civil society, it should start by monitoring its public figures; if a public figure refuses to be monitored, things will become like a public bathroom.”

The incident drew a lot of attention online. Netizen comments included: “Li Chengpeng, dongsuan (win)! Li Chengpeng, dongsuan! dongsuan!” “Here is a person of integrity. Li Chengpeng is a man of integrity. I support having such a man as a people’s congress deputy.” “He showed how public figures facing accusations should act and laid down a good foundation for ordinary citizens to participate in politics.” “If there are people in Ministry of Railways who would own up to their fault and be forthcoming, people would be more understanding, but the Ministry of Railways chose to act the opposite way.” “This is a man with backbone, someone who can shoulder responsibilities. This is a person of integrity. Thumbs up to a man like Li Chengpeng.”

Even before Li Chengpeng announced his candidacy, another independent candidate, Li Sihua, had already made headlines. Li Sihua was a campaign staff member in Xinyu City of Jiangxi Province, who was jailed for six days. After the Liu Ping Incident, elections opened in Yushui District of Xinyu. In Tongzhou Neighborhood Li Sihua posted the candidate list in early May but did not announce the polling day. After making inquiries, it was learned that polling day was on June 29, by working backward from that date, people knew the preliminary candidate list should have been announced before June 14.

On May 20, Li Sihua went to the Yushui District election committee for forms to become a candidate by joint recommendation by ten or more voters but was rejected. They asked his name and address and then told Li to leave. The form was obtained only after much arm twisting by others for Li Sihua. Li then collected 19 recommendation letters and 218 signatures. On May 27, Li and three people went to the Yushui District election committee to submit the forms but the staff refused to accept them. On May 30, Li called the Yushui District election committee for an explanation. The staff member who refused the forms said “The election committee is entitled to qualify a candidate. According to the provincial People’s Congress rules, cross constituency recommendation is not valid. We told the neighborhood committee office to return the forms to you.”

On June 14, the Tongzhou neighborhood committee posted the preliminary candidate list with four names. Li was not one of them. The next day, Li went to the Jiangxi People’s Congress Standing Committee for an explanation. But the provincial election committee only let the People’s Congress Office of Letters and Calls handle Li’s case and his questions went unanswered. On June 16, Li called People’s Congress election departments at the provincial, municipal and district levels to enquire about the validity of cross constituency recommendations. The Xinyu Municipal People’s Congress and Yushui District People’s Congress both replied that based on provincial People’s Congress guidelines, cross constituency recommendation cannot be accepted.

The Jiangxi People’s Congress election committee’s reply was, “Since you have already received a legal reply on cross constituency recommendation from the NPC you should fax us that.” Li then faxed to Jiangxi’s Provincial People’s Congress’s election committee the reply by the Legislative Affairs Work Committee of the NPC dated Aug 31, 1998 that said in direct elections of People’s Congress deputies at the township and county levels, candidates can be jointly recommended by10 or more voters not limited to voters of the local constituency but can also be voters of the same administrative district. It is valid for voters to vote for someone outside their local constituency but within the same administrative district to be deputy. The next afternoon, Jiangxi’s provincial People’s Congress election committee called Li Sihua regarding the fax and the complaint and said that after consideration they had transferred Li’s complaint letter to Xinyu Municipality and he would need to liaise with the Municipal People’s Congress there.

Many Methods to Thwart Candidacy

After receiving word the provincial People’s Congress election committee’s transferred the opinion, the Tongzhou Neighborhood Committee’s secretary and his team went to Xihe Village of Tongzhou Neighborhood to investigate the joint recommendation incident. The investigation found that of the 200-some signatures for recommendation, five were “forged signatures,” which, “undermined the election.” Li Sihua explained that it was true that some signatures were signed on behalf of others, but they all happened between husband and wife or father and son and they were all agreed upon. On June 21, Li visited the Yushui District election committee again to question the legality of the recommendation forms and the disqualification of potential candidates, this time requesting a written reply. An officer surnamed Liu of the election committee said, “I only need to give you an oral reply. You forged and defrauded the recommendation form, making the form invalid and I hold you accountable for that.”

Li never qualified as a candidate. The Yushui District election committee said it would pursue Li Sihua for forgery. It is after all a David and Goliath struggle when one is in dispute with the government. Being accused of undermining the election was unnerving for Li, yet he soldiered on in his campaign. On June 26, three days before polling day Li and his team went to Shizhou of Tongzhou District to promote public education. The activity was sabotaged by the police, which upset many onlookers. On June 28, the day before polling day Li posted on Sina Weibo and then disappeared. That same afternoon Li was taken away and was not allowed home until after polling completed on June 29. Li Sihua said he had been taken away by three staff members from the neighborhood committee of Yushui District, Shitonggu County, Yuchun.

The day before polling day the election committee still had not announced the exact time and venues for polling. Most voters had yet to collect their voters IDs and election information was not made public. Tongzhou District began polling sometime after five in the morning; most locations did not follow polling station standards but used mobile ballot boxes instead. The polling agent was not appointed by the voters. The design of the ballot box, with an oversized opening, was not standard. When the ballot paper was distributed, the polling staff told the voters to vote in a certain way, to select certain candidates. Many voters insisted on voting for Li Sihua by write-in vote but these votes were not allowed into the ballot box. Those votes for Li Sihua that did managed to make it into the ballot box were removed. Polling finished hastily at around nine in the morning. The ballot boxes were taken away by the polling staff and vote counting was conducted elsewhere. The polling results were announced on July 1. Li Sihua had only 202 write-in votes and lost.

The World and China Institute (WCI) is a civilian organization founded 17 years ago in Beijing; its scope of research covers political issues including elections and public budget reforms. Recently, they set up a research team on Chinese election reform to study this year’s LPC elections. They listed the following features in their analysis after studying elections in Jiangxi, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Guangxi, Xinjiang, Wuhan and Guangzhou, among others.

The first feature is that the number and clout of independent candidates was unprecedented. The first incident that triggered the independent candidate hype was the Liu Ping Incident in Jiangxi that occurred in late May and early June. Independent candidate and retired worker Liu Ping exposed the manipulation and oppression she experienced in Yushui district of Yinyu, Jiangxi Province, which inspired groups of self-recommended candidates to announce their candidacy or published their election manifestos online. As election season progressed, there were nearly ten thousand independent candidates all over the country. Since most provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions have not yet entered the application stage for candidacy, it is estimated there may be several hundred thousand independent candidates. Independent candidates are mostly civil rights activists. There are more audacious independent candidates this year who are not afraid of oppression, which shows that the conflict and confrontation between the Chinese government and society has grown. The people are no longer afraid of the government and are finding different channels to express their opinions, of which elections is one. More and more independent candidates do not care about winning but are working together. Elections thus become a means to express a desire for political participation. Online communication has become a trend of how people organize; they interact and encourage each other, especially through Weibo.

The second feature is that elections were conducted stealthily in many locations. There were no promotions or newspaper announcements. Officials tried their best to keep the public in the dark. The elections should have started in July 2011, yet five provinces and autonomous regions quietly held elections early without any newspaper or broadcasting announcements. There were no banners, no publicity at all lest the public find out about it. Five provinces and autonomous regions including Shanxi all finished elections before July 1. The public was not supposed to know about the early elections but in May, when the story of Jiangxi’s independent candidate Liu Ping broke, everyone knew. The WCI team went to study the Guangzhou elections and found the same problem. The team could hardly find election flyers on main streets, only occasionally on street corner bulletin boards. In the past, newspapers would cover the elections and the CCP would brag about how democracy was successfully implemented and how citizens call the shots. This year, things are kept out of the press as much as possible. Guangzhou Province wanted to cover up the election but the candidates were adamantly outgoing so the authorities could not succeed. This shows how high the desire for political participation is in China, which has something to do with people fighting for their rights for years. When civil rights awareness increases, so does people’s desire for political participation.

The third feature is the role of the media in this election; the surge in independent candidate is partly due to new media, especially Sina Weibo. Online discussion groups formed and almost all independent candidates announced their intentions to stand for elections on Weibo. Experts, academics and netizens post their comments, tips and strategies. Though many candidates did not make the cut or were thrown out of the race because the authorities thought they were troublemakers, many continued to run for office. The Liu Ping Incident in May in Jiangxi had some traditional media coverage. Now many places completely disallow the press to cover elections. This means people must disseminate information through new media like Sina Weibo. In the past, the people did not have new media outlets like Weibo. In 2006 there was no Weibo. At that time, the government ordered the media to not report on elections, so there was no way society could talk about elections because nobody knew who was running and who won. This election is different. People tell each other what’s going on and encourage each other. Academics and experts can give their opinion any time on Weibo.

Overall, there exists many problems in the provinces where elections have been completed: Jiangxi, Shanxi, Guangxi, Xinjiang, Wuhan of Hubei and Guangzhou of Guangdong. Most lacked secret ballots, polling staff interfering with voting by suggesting and telling voters whom to vote for, and there was no open vote counting. Polling staff removed the ballot boxes after polling finished. Vote counting was done the next day with no third party present. Nobody could confirm what was going on.

Election experts in general agree that Beijing was the most open city in the last general election. This year people look forward to new progress. Right now, Beijing is only in the voter registration stage so candidates have not applied for candidacy yet. All of Beijing has been kicked up a notch for promoting the election. Banners are flying in every community. Things are considered fair so far in terms of voter registration and candidate filing fort independent candidates. A group of independent candidates including Xiong Wei and Xu Chunliu are very clear about their intentions to stand for election and the government has not given them too much of a hard time. Only in Xu Chunliu’s case, the authorities told her to stand for election in the district she worked for, which she responded by quitting her job in order to run in her neighborhood. For those who have filed to run in their communities, there are only two independent groups which faced considerable pressure and trouble. They are both civil rights activist groups of 10 and 13 members each. To the government, they are “stubborn nails,” persistent civil rights activists who petition. The Beijing police try to give them a hard time as the authorities think they are backed by some suspicious groups and therefore watching their activities closely. While it is true that many civil rights activists in Beijing would like to stand for elections, winning may not be the only thing on their mind, their intention is to participate and make their candidacy impactful. To them, participation is more important than winning. The most important thing is for them to find a channel to express their political will.

How the mobile population can vote is also a difficult problem to solve in China. According to the sixth National Census (not including the mobile population of cities divided into districts) there is a migrant population of 220 million in China, seven million of them in Beijing. How this huge population exercises its right to vote paints a gloomy picture. In the last general election, there was no election law stipulation on migrants running for office. In the 2010 election amendment, the NPC proposed there should be measures to protect the migrant population’s right to vote and be voted at different levels of governments.

Mobile Population Standing for Elections

On September 21, would-be independent candidate Xiong Wei came to the resident’s committee of Fuyanmen of Haidian District and successfully registered as the first Beijing voter. Xiong Wei’s residency is in Jingmen, Hubei Province and he has lived and worked in Beijing for a decade. According to law, he is qualified to stand for election in Beijing, because he has resided in Beijing over a year and has acquired a Beijing residence permit. If a migrant wants to stand for election in Beijing, he may do so after proving his electoral qualifications from his place of registered residency. He may stand for election where he lives or works in Beijing. Three months prior, Xiong Wei began putting together the necessary paperwork for election, including certification from resident’s committee at his place of registered residency and certification from the standing committee of the People’s Congress of his place of registered residency. Xiong said in recent years as democracy progressed, there was more willingness to run in elections. In Beijing, certain segments of the population, especially the migrant population, does not know about People’s Congress deputies. They do not know they are free to choose their People’s Congress deputies. He hopes by running, he would let more people understand the significance of People’s Congress deputies and elections.

Xiong Wei said People’s Congress deputies play an important role, the local heads of government are elected by the People’s Congress deputies at the same level. They are bestowed with important powers such as the powers to question and veto. An example of People’s Congress deputies ability to question could be regarding the issue of environmental protection for a neighborhood. Ordinary citizen complaints usually fall on deaf ears with the government departments but government officials must listen to People’s Congress deputies.

In order to express one’s demand for his interests, the only means in China is through political participation. People flock to this only outlet, which the government is apparently not prepared to let people have. The country has no plans to reform. The unresolved conflict between government and the public continues to grow. Looking at independent candidates and the people’s support for them suggests that the resentment people have for the government has grown stronger.

Beijing academic Li Fan said that though some election reform has occurred at the grassroots level, overall, things are not looking good. Although a legal framework for elections exists, it is hardly one that has rule of law. The main problem is that there are too many loopholes in the procedural details which make elections prone to manipulation. Second, the huge migrant population complicates the simple majority requirement of elections and the current lack of a viable solution makes elections more complex. Third, there is no measure in place to address the bribery problem. Fourth, the lack of legal processes make it impossible for election procedural disputes to resolve in court.

Li Fan said a good way for independent candidates would be to assign a certain percentage of candidates on the ballot to be filled by independent candidates recommended by 10 or more voters. In other words, to assign an election niche for independent candidates. For instance, locations assign 10 to 20 percent of the candidate list for independent candidates of joint recommendation and the jointly recommended candidates are allowed to compete (even without government’s prearrangement). When candidates who are genuinely supported by the people win, they will bring new political dynamics to China, which would facilitate Chinese democratic and political development.


Chinese-style Election is Full of Loopholes

Li Fan points out that the Chinese election system and rules are so thoughtless and hasty that they are prone to manipulation.

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WCI was established 17 years ago in Beijing. Recently, its director led the Chinese Election System Reform Research Team to study the LPC election in Guangzhou. On Oct 5, he was invited by the Taiwan National Chengchi University for an academic exchange. He was recently interviewed by Asia Weekly in Beijing.

When did the “independent candidate” phenomenon start in China?

It briefly took place in the 1980 election after reform and opening started. The 1982 constitutional amendment took away the party requirement. People’s Congress elections were strictly controlled and joint nomination of a candidate by 10 voters was rare. There were still some success stories such as primary school teacher Yao Lifa who became a People’s Congress deputy in Qianjiang Municipality in Hubei in the 1989 election. In 2003, a group of independent candidates emerged in Shenzhen, Hubei and Beijing. This happens in every general election.

Who are these independent candidates basically?

Looking from the beginning, it was common to see peasants, lawyers, university professors, college students, homeowners, civil rights activists, and others run as independent candidates. There are two basic types: those who want to defend their rights and idealists who advocate democracy and freedom. In this election, some people announced on Sina Weibo that they were running as independent candidates. In addition to these two groups, we now see an additional group of people on the Internet, enthusiasts of expressing their opinions online. Other than that, some are from the media. They are similar to the above two groups because they are idealistic.

Why would local governments try all means to thwart independent candidates’ efforts?

The emergence of independent candidates makes local governments nervous. The discussion starts at the grassroots People’s Congress level. People’s Congresses are technically the highest authority at any given level in Chinese political system, but the real power does not reside in the hands of the people, it is in the hands of the Party. People’s Congresses are figurehead institutions with little real power. Therefore, people call them rubber stamps, that is, the main function of People’s Congresses is to put a legitimate stamp on resolutions passed by the Party. In order to secure the rubber-stamping function of People’s Congresses, it is necessary for the Party to have complete control over it. That is why competition in LPC elections is avoided. The composition of delegates is based on an allocation and even distribution of different interest groups. The delegates are carefully selected by the organization department of the Party. They are pre-selected and their seats are guaranteed by the People’s Congress. This kind of election system is known as the spoils system in political science terminology; or it is called the incentive system in China. In every general election, the desirable number and types of delegates—for example, how many women, cadres and peasants will be selected—are proposed by relative agencies and confirmed by the organization department. This is how allocation and incentive-based delegate quotas are formed. The delegates are determined before the election, and People’s Congress elections will take place according to this list of candidates. The election process is basically a confirmation procedure, which is why the government doesn’t want competition in the elections.

What independent candidate wants to do is to challenge this pre-determined list and win a People’s Congress seat with direct support from voters. The local Party, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) and People’s Congress naturally do not like this type of challenge to the pre-determined list. The authorities think that nobody should be allowed to break the status quo.

What do independent candidates want?

First, the chance to defend legal rights. Second, an outlet to voice public opinion. Third, running for office is a kind of political right. The People’s Congress system has always been a pre-determined election system. Therefore, the only means the public can use is running as an independent to challenge the vested interests.

Where do independent candidates challenge People’s Congress elections?

Since the government keeps such a tight rein on the election and the delegates are basically pre-determined, the public is apathetic to elections. It is a very passive election process. Given that it is a pre-determined election, election procedures do not matter. To the government, the results are most important. Given such an election process, voters, candidates and election organizations act politely and civilized and they cordially go through the process together. Therefore, there are no complaints during the election process and there is no need for supervision. But with the emergence of independent candidates, loopholes of the election system and manipulations by elections organizers became obvious. In the past, nobody cared about these procedural details because the results came before the elections. Elections were not competitive and were for show. It is only through the emergence of independent candidate have the flaws of Chinese election systems and procedures been revealed. The election system is full of flaws and prone to manipulation, is far from free, fair or competitive. It is a misnomer to call them direct elections.


Independent Candidates

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In elections, the term “independent candidate” refers to nominations made not through political parties or relevant organizations but by joint nominations by ordinary citizens. It is a term commonly understood and universally used. On June 8, 2011, China Central Television (CCTV) Beijing broadcast a news story showing the NPC Legal Affairs Committee saying that independent candidates had no legal basis, which caused much confusion. Some questioned what term they should be called while others mistakenly thought independent candidates are illegal, which makes some people feel ambivalent about independent candidates. Independent candidates are forced to repeatedly clarify that joint recommendation by 10 or more people is legal. Some academics believe that because there is no stipulation for independent candidates, it was simply a play of words to present them as “without legal basis.” The existence of a legal stipulation has nothing to do with using the term independent candidate as a shortened form to refer to candidacy by joint recommendation by 10 or more voters.


Rules of Chinese People’s Congress Elections

By Zhang Qianhua

According to the Chinese Constitution, the National People"s Congress is the highest organ of state power of the People"s Republic of China (PRC). It is divided into national (“NPC”) and local People’s Congresses (“LPC”) at different levels, with the former as the state’s highest organ of power and the latter as a hierarchy of provincial, county and township levels organs.

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Deputies to the NPC and People"s Congresses of provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the Central Government, cities divided into districts, and autonomous prefectures are elected by the People"s Congresses at the next lower level. Nationwide, over two million LPC deputies will be selected by direct election.

This year’s independent candidates running for People’s Congress are concentrated in the lowest level People’s Congresses where citizens directly vote in their constituencies.

Deputies to the NPC from Hong Kong, unlike in mainland, are not selected by direct election. Qualified Hong Kong citizens can file with the NPC deputy committee for elections set up by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Candidates can be jointly nominated by 10 percent of the members of the election committee. Candidates who are approved by the election committee will need to be confirmed by the NPC Standing Committee.

Taiwan NPC deputies are selected by Taiwanese compatriots in the provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the Central Government and the People"s Liberation Army. The election is a consultation election by secret ballot.