Government approved ‘Independent’ candidates

Much is made about China’s communist system. One of the biggest assumptions is that people have no or little political rights. On the contrary, China’s constitution includes many political rights, including the right to stand in elections. The government even publishes an Human Rights report on China, although the focus of the content is questionnable. The thing many people don’t realize is that the problem isn’t that rights aren’t enshrined in legal documents, it’s just that they don’t get implemented in reality. Independent candidates are permitted, it’s just that an independent candidates that needs government backing isn’t much of an independent candidate. SCMP’s ‘Pearl Briefing’ by Fiona Tam explains:

Despite having the constitutional right to stand, would-be candidates still need the Party’s blessings

It may be a right guaranteed by the mainland’s constitution, but Liang Shuxin, a 35-year-old independent candidate for a district people’s congress seat in Guangzhou, says it is nearly impossible to exercise your right to stand for election.

Liang, a founder of the Micro-Foundation charity programme, was among the more than 100 internet-savvy independents who nominated to contest this week’s elections. Held every five years, they allow people to vote for government-approved candidates.

Liang said he and his supporters had been harassed by the authorities and that four supporters were forced to quit the campaign after being pressured by their employers, who were acting on government orders. At least seven supporters have been harassed by government officials.

“Many policemen in uniform and plain clothes took pictures and shot video when we distributed 5,000 leaflets with election slogans and portraits to some 50,000 residents in the community,” Liang wrote on his microblog. “My colleagues and my employer received calls from the authorities, who tried to investigate my background. More investigations are coming.”

The authorities in Liang’s election district, in Panyu, then tried to rule him out as a candidate by announcing that only women who were not Communist Party members were eligible to contest the election. That announcement was revoked the next day after widespread public criticism. Other independent candidates in Guangzhou also accused authorities in their election districts of trying to impose the same restriction.

Article 34 of the constitution says: “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 ethnic status, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status or length of residence, except persons deprived of political rights according to law.”

Liang finally managed to secure 19 nominations before the deadline, but was still disqualified by the authorities, who said that only nine of his supporters were qualified voters. Candidates need the support of at least 10 voters to become preliminary candidates. They can then be approved as official ones after discussions with the authorities. Guangdong University of Foreign Studies law school student Ye Ruili was another independent candidate to suffer harassment. The 21-year-old undergraduate, who had 1,000 supporters, was forced to withdraw his application after the university refused to allow him to return to his dormitory unless he did so. Many other Guangzhou independent candidates and their supporters quit their campaigns due to harassment by the authorities.

Theoretically, even though Liang and the other independents – including petitioners, activists and scholars – failed to become official candidates, they could still have been official candidates if enough voters wrote their names in an optional underlined space on the ballot paper. However, the government’s clampdown and the likelihood that any such results would be tampered with made that very unlikely.

Running on the “elect a neighbour to be your representative” slogan, Liang’s campaign attracted widespread media attention in Guangzhou, partly because a number of staffers from the outspoken The Southern Metropolis News and other newspapers lived in the neighbourhood. A columnist and an editor at The Southern Metropolis News were among those who nominated Liang. Their newspaper gave independent candidates wide coverage after some declared their intention to run as early as May, but that ended in early August when the authorities banned such stories, fearing that rising civil rights awareness and political consciousness could trigger more social unrest.

One of the best known independent candidates, Li Chengpeng, a journalist-turned-author in Chengdu, Sichuan province , told his 3.6 million microblog followers that he was “willing to express the legal visions of people, supervise the government and push society forward”.

But many say the independent candidates’ actions only amount to performance art because their campaigns could never change the mainland’s political practices, which are strictly controlled by the Communist Party. “Just like freedom of speech and demonstration, they have been literally guaranteed by the constitution too, but everyone knows it’s a lie,” one internet user wrote.

With Beijing’s efforts to curb the rise of political consciousness and keep people focused on economic development, mainland democrats have a long way to go in raising public awareness about participatory democracy. To be sure, the independent candidates’ campaigns are among the limited ways to spread awareness about the constitutionally guaranteed citizens’ rights. And that is a message that will surely be amplified by millions of mainland internet users.