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Yaxue Cao, November 27, 2016
Ms. Liu Huizhen (刘惠珍) is a villager in the District of Fangshan (房山区), on the southwestern outskirts of Beijing. She’s a victim of forced demolition who fought hard to preserve her property but lost it anyway. This year, she is one of the 70 or so Beijing residents who organized to compete for seats as district People’s Representatives. China held its once-every-five-year grassroots elections for county-district level People’s Representatives on November 15. In a joint statement, Ms. Liu and other independent candidates promised that “they will make sure every voter knows who they are and how to reach them with their problems, and as their representatives, will monitor the government and its functions.”
Financial Times, Washington Post, and other media outlets reported Ms. Liu’s candidacy. On November 17, BBC posted a striking 5-minute video of its Beijing correspondent John Sudworth visiting Ms. Liu, showing him blocked and manhandled by a throng of plainclothes cops, or government-hired thugs. The video went viral on WeChat, and got a lot of play on Twitter too.
On November 19, a CCTV journalist based in London — according to her Twitter bio in any case — with the handle @KongLinlin, accused John Sudworth of making “fake” news. She has since been identified as Kong Linlin (孔琳琳).
Several Twitter users, including BBC’s Stephen McDonell, asked her to point out which part of John Sudworth’s reporting was fake. She replied in Chinese:
“Liu Huizhen has been party to a lawsuit because of a housing demolition, and a BBC journalist in China got himself involved in the Chinese judiciary, trying to artificially lump together Chinese grassroots elections with a demolition suit. When he reported for Western audiences, he made no mention of the woman’s background, misleading people exactly the way he reported the Obama Red Carpet Gate.”
Ms. Kong is referring to the fact that Liu sued Fangshan District Housing and Urban-Rural Construction Committee for unlawful demolition and lost in the first instance and then, in 2015, the appeal.
In his reporting, Sudworth made no mention of the demolition suit, as it’s irrelevant to the elections. So how did Sudworth “artificially lump together Chinese grassroots elections with a demolition suit”?
Does Liu’s “background” matter in the elections, and in her role as an independent candidate? It appears to me that it’s the CCTV reporter who’s lumping together Liu Huizhen’s lawsuit with her participation in the elections.
Ms. Kong went on to explain why the story is supposedly fake:
“Isn’t he deliberately blurring this woman’s lawsuit and using Western political concepts to get involved in China’s rural economic disputes? Hasn’t he been making hate propaganda for BBC?” (Emphasis in original.)
Continuing to explain the alleged falsity of Sudworth’s reporting, she tweeted (English her own): “Deliberately reporting on unclear fact , depend on single resource ,misleading the audience .That is also a fake news.” (A Twitter user commented: “this is not how you type punctuation.”)
She picked it up some two hours later on November 20:
“A Chinese person who doesn’t abide by Chinese election laws but fantasizes that she can ‘participate’ in elections in the American way. It’s inevitable that she’d be ‘locked up’. Ms. Liu also supported Hong Kong independence — how could she have the right to be elected?”
According to Article 3 of China’s Electoral Law, “All citizens of the People’s Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 shall 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. Persons who have been deprived of political rights according to the law shall not have the right to vote and stand for election.”
Ms. Liu may have lost a civil lawsuit against her local government, but she’s not a criminal and has not been deprived of political rights. In November 2014, Liu and nine others in Beijing were detained for holding signs to support the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and she was released after seven months in detention.
By now, many Chinese Twitter users were arguing with and ridiculing Kong Linlin.
A few hours later, Ms. Liu Huizhen, who recently joined Twitter, became aware of the unfolding argument and tweeted: “You are a Chinese journalist, and you have no regard for fact. All you do is sing the praise [of the Party]. Have you eaten up your own conscience?”
“I’m Liu Huizhen,” she continued, “they blocked me from leaving my home because I declared that I would take part in the elections as a candidate. The world wouldn’t know such ugliness if the BBC didn’t happen to capture the truth. Ms. Kong Linlin, you may eat you dog food with your conscience unperturbed, but you’ve got no right to insult me!”
“I’ve decided to tweet more details of my candidacy. @KongLinlin, open up your titanium dog eyes to see who’s violating the law,” Liu went on.
“I submitted my name [to the district’s electoral committee] in mid-October, 2016 to stand for election. Around 10 am on October 30, I picked up the voter recommendation form and candidate CV form. Around noon on the same day, I began to seek support in the No. 50 electoral zone. By the next day, 24 voters in my zone had signed on to recommend me as a candidate for office of People’s Representative.”
According to Article 29 of China’s Electoral Law, any citizen with the recommendation of 10 or more voters can enter the primary selection.
Liu continued, “What the BBC video revealed was only a tiny fraction of my far more complicated experience. The repressive agents were so blatant that not even policemen dared intervene. So you tell me: who is backing them? I can’t imagine there are journalists like Kong Linlin who would defend them! I ask the whole world to judge this. Thank you everyone!”
She attached photographs of the neighborhood posting of five candidates for the No. 50 electoral zone, and her ballot, where she wrote in herself and another candidate.
An hour later, the CCTV journalist resumed her attack:
“You should also disclose how you received guidance, and how much funding you received, from overseas anti-China hostile forces.”
“How did BBC accidentally videotape you? How did you accidentally have photos as proof when you supported Hong Kong independence? You’ve actively taken part in anti-China political activities. Stop pretending you’re an innocent village woman.”
Ms. Kong provided no evidence for these accusations. To a Twitter user who pointed out her distorted logic, she replied: “I also support legitimate candidates who use the ballot to gain rights, but those who are funded by foreign political forces will have no lawful right to stand for elections in China.”
To a Twitter user who criticized the Chinese government’s use of thuggery to stop independent candidates, Ms. Kong has this to say: “China prohibits the use of illegal assembly to participate in People’s Representative elections. If [she] wants to be elected as a representative the American way, [she] should go to the United States.”
One comment asked Ms. Kong: “How many people together constitute ‘illegal assembly’?” while another comment pointed out: “So far, Ms. Liu’s ‘violation’ of the law only existed in your mouth, but I saw with my own eyes the violation of law by the thugs, I also see that you are defending such violations of the law. …By defending such violations of the law, you don’t show your high ground in rule-of-law thinking, but the lowness of your moral standard.”
To a Twitter user who asked Ms. Kong to explain what a “legitimate” candidate is, she replied:
“First of all, [a candidate] cannot be manipulated by foreign forces. This is a basic requirement for candidates in any country.” She didn’t reply when the same Twitter user asked her: “Which law defines whether or not a candidate is ‘manipulated by foreign forces’? Who has the right to define it? Through what procedures is it defined? Or is it just an arbitrary decision from the lips of the relevant organ?” (i.e. official government body.)
Finally, CCTV’s Kong Linlin had this to say to Ms. Liu Huizhen:
“Ms. Liu, to petition your case, you go to the court. Nobody is blocking you from taking part in the elections, except that you have to go through appropriate procedures and abide by Chinese law. You mix your petition with illegal assembly, and in addition, you collude with foreign forces, and support Hong Kong independence. You are doing so many things, and each one of them endangers the country. Don’t be sold out by those people in the end.”
Because of this prolonged argument between Ms. Kong Linlin and Ms. Liu Huizhen and a good number of Chinese Twitter users, I scrolled down Ms. Kong’s Twitter feed and had a few more peeks into her world:
- On UK public opinion against the Hinkley deal: “Very close mind .” (English her own.)
- She likes to use the word “democrazy” to answer Twitter users who express disgust with her views.
- On the Hamilton cast reading a statement to Vice President-elect Mike Pence: “Insult your audience is not the real free speech.” (English her own.)
- On the execution of Jia Jinglong (贾敬龙): “If the case is so easy to judge ,why we need a professional judge .” (English her own.)
- On Syria: “…it is all because of Obama.” (English her own.)
- On the CCP and China today: “Chinese young people have to thank that big mountain that blocks the wind for them when they wear high-end earpieces and listen to music and discuss current affairs, spared of the fate of the Iraqi, Libyan, and Syrian refugees who are displaced or die on their journey because of the harm of color revolutions.”
- On Western media: “To understand the evil side of western media , they try to provoke and make more troubles on the rising China.” [English her own]
- On the UK: “Hahaha, The British,’ like a lion,they like to roar,but can no longer hunt.'” (English her own.)
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Compare Ms. Kong’s worldview to that articulated in these two propaganda videos released during the trials of four lawyers and activists earlier this year:
‘We Have a Fake Election’: China Disrupts Local Campaigns, the New York Times, Nov. 15, 2016
For Over 36 Years, Grassroots Elections in China Have Made No Progress – An Interview With Hu Ping, China Change, Nov. 1, 2016
Yaxue Cao, November 13, 2016
On November 9, around 6:30 am EST (7:30 pm in Beijing), Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported that Chinese president Xi Jinping’s had sent the U. S. president-elect Donald Trump a “congratulatory telegram.” A telegram, really? How do you send a telegram to a New York billionaire in 2016? It sounds like Mao Zedong sending a telegram to comrade Enver Hoxha in Albania in 1961.
Whether or not a telegram was sent, Mr. Trump hasn’t received it. Nor has he tried to reach out to Xi, though he spoke to nine world leaders within 24 hours of his victory, and by Friday, he has spoken with or heard from “most” leaders except for Xi.
The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpieces, however, have lost no time to lay out their expectations of the president-elect.
China and the U.S. Must Continue to Cooperate
A couple of hours later, around 10 am EST, November 9, Xinhua published a commentary titled “Hoping for the China-U. S. Relationship to Make Bigger Advances From a New Starting Point.” When Trump takes office at the beginning of next year, it begins, it will be the 45th Anniversary of Shanghai Communique, and it will present the two countries “a big opportunity…to make a new step forward.”
Our relationship has been normalized for 40 years, the commentary goes on, and we have achieved so much in trade, dialogues, dealing with regional and global challenges, and we have been cooperating more and more deeply. “It’s a win-win for both if we cooperate, and it will hurt both if we fight.” Our common interests greatly outweigh our differences, it indicated.
The word “cooperation” appeared 10 times in this brief commentary of 1,200 characters.
It’s Just Campaign Rhetoric, Right?
Mr. Trump vowed to “put America first” and voiced objection against globalization. He promised to designate China as a “currency manipulator,” and said the U. S. would slap a 45% tariff on Chinese imports. He plans to reinforce the American military presence in Asia.
But surely, the commentary says, “campaign language is just campaign language.”
“Reasonable people have realized that, after decades of development, trade cooperation has become the brightest part of the China-U. S. relations. The two countries are seeing mutually beneficial trade relations displaying these trends: the areas of our cooperation continue to multiply, the scope of our cooperation continues to expand, and the level of our cooperation continues to elevate. Trade and economic cooperation is the ‘ballast’ and the ‘propeller’ of the China–U. S. relationship.”
Isolationism is bad for the America — the commentary cited a researcher named Lee Branstetter and unspecified “American economists.”
Overseas Military Interventionism Is Bad for America
However, China likes Trump’s proposed reduction of overseas military involvement during the campaign.
“History has proved that the U. S. has paid heavy political and economic costs for overseas military interventionism. Instead, China and the U. S. should coordinate and cooperate on hot regional issues as well as global challenges.”
A ‘New Type Great Power Relationship’ and ‘Win-win’
In the early evening, around 6:30pm, EST, on November 9, the People’s Daily published a commentary titled “The Big Picture of the China-U. S. Relationship Won’t Change.” It opines:
“The effort to build new type great power relationship between China and the U. S. is based on the solid and tangible interests of both peoples, and promoting the healthy development of the two countries’ business and trade relationship is an important channel to realize these interests.”
It says that “it’s been proven that the two countries are mature powers capable of handling many complex and sensitive issues, cooperating bilaterally, regionally and globally, and managing their differences constructively.”
As examples of the two countries “consciously cultivating strategic mutual trust,” the piece evokes Xi Jinping and Obama’s meetings at the “Sunnylands meeting” in June 2013, their “Yingtai nightly conversations” inside the CCP headquarters of Zhongnanhai in November 2014, their “autumn chat” in the White House in September 2015, and their “stroll along the West Lake” in Hangzhou in September 2016.
Repeating pretty much what the Xinhua commentary says, sometimes verbatim, it goes on to coax the President-elect that “it is for the fundamental interest of the two peoples that China and the U. S. develop long-term healthy and stable relationship, which is also the overall expectation of the international community.”
China Will Fight Back….
On November 11, Global Times, another mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published an article recommending that China “should stand ready to fight back if Donald Trump rolls out measures against China after he is sworn in as US president.” These include “establish[ing] trade barriers for American imports,” naming Apple for example. “If Trump plans to persuade American enterprises in China to return to the U.S., which would take jobs away from China,” China should consider the 80,000 jobs its investments have created in the U. S.
(To put the matter in perspective, the number of U. S. jobs outsourced to China since 2001, according to one statistic, is 3,200,000.)
“Without a doubt, China has plenty of chips with which to bargain with the U.S. …China should also develop contingency plans to prepare for the worst, if the U.S. does provoke a trade war. In the meantime, Beijing is likely to seek dialogue with Trump to ensure a smooth transition in Sino-U.S. ties.”
‘What Concerns Us Most Is Globalization’
On November 12, Ms. Hu Shuli (胡舒立), the editor-in-chief of Caixin Media, believed to be closely tied to the Party’s disciplinary czar Wang Qishan (王岐山), opined on Caijing’s Weibo (later published in Caixin) about Trump’s win. She observes soberly that, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, globalization will be undergoing tumultuous changes, and “all of these are highly relevant to China.”
“To maintain stable economic development, deepen reforms and open-up, and realize the goal of a prosperous society, China needs a smooth and bright global economic environment that robustly pulls forward. From 1978 when China initiated reforms, to 1992 when China revamped reforms, to the beginning of the 21st century when China accelerated opening up, China has been enjoying just such an international environment. It’s true that the Chinese economy is not as open as the American economy. Right now China is planning to continue to open up, but the U.S. is signaling a closure. What is China going to do?”
She prescribed continuous globalization and domestic reforms that will benefit more of the people, but China watchers are anything but sanguine about the changes Xi Jinping has been implementing since taking power.
On the eve of the U.S. election, China’s Climate Minister Xie Zhenhua (解振华) and one of his top negotiators Zou Ji (邹骥), warned that Trump should not pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement as he said he would during the campaign.
“If Trump were to insist on doing things his own way, then he would pay a heavy price both politically and diplomatically,” said Zou Ji, deputy director of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy, part of China’s state planning apparatus.
“The U.S. would suffer the greatest harm and of course, the rest of the world would also be implicated,” he told reporters on Nov. 4.
Zou’s comments marked the second occurrence in a week of a Chinese official commenting on a foreign election, both of whom condemned Trump’s threat to spurn the Paris Agreement, made by nearly 200 governments, which takes effect on Nov. 11.
On Nov. 1, China’s top climate change negotiator rejected Trump’s plan to back out, saying a wise political leader should make policy in line with global trends.
While it’s amusing to see China touting itself as “a responsible country,” China’s worries about the U.S. withdrawing from the climate change pact may have more to do with just climate change.
In an essay in 2014, political scientist Wu Qiang (吴强) pointed out that Obama’s deal with Xi Jinping on reducing China’s carbon emission was “almost the sole instance of progress the Obama administration has made in U.S.-China relations at a time when the relationship is becoming more difficult.” He argued that climate change was the bond that would be the engine driving the relationship.
“During the Clinton administration, Most Favored Nation Trade Status was the issue that bound the relationship. During the Bush administration, the bond was the war on terrorism. Now that these bonds are gone, emissions promises are becoming the new bond that keeps the two countries in a cooperative relationship in which they clash often but not break up.”
What Will Trump’s China Policy Look Like?
I will not guess, but this piece of colorful advice from a Trump advisor caught my eyes the other day:
To deal with China, he says, the United States should act like an aggressive patient at a dentist’s office: “Here’s how the patient deals with the dentist: sits down in the chair, grabs the dentist by the nuts, and says, ‘You don’t hurt me, I won’t hurt you.’”
I’m all for grabbing Xi Jinping by the balls, just not lying on a dentist chair.
Trump’s Brief Encounter With the Chinese Judiciary
On May 18, 2015, the Beijing Superior People’s Court upheld a lower court ruling that denied the registration of Trump as a trademark in China.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.
Donald Trump’s Peace Through Strength Vision for the Asia-Pacific, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, Foreign Policy, November 7, 2016.
A Trump-China Reading List, Graham Webster, November 9, 2016.
A Declaration by Yao Lifa and 57 Other Candidates for People’s Representative in Qianjiang City, Hubei Province
November 6, 2016
Mr. Yao Lifa (姚立法) has been an advocate of grassroots elections in China since 1998. – The Editors
We live on the lowest rung of society; we yearn for a brighter future.
We think that changing the status quo isn’t as arduous as some people make out — because we can vote.
We have the right to elect the electorate group leader and deputy group leader in our constituency,
We have the right to jointly nominate preliminary candidates for People’s Representative elections,
We have the right to be nominated as preliminary candidates for People’s Representative elections,
Our approval or disapproval of preliminary candidates is the basis on which the election committee decides the formal list of candidates for People’s Representative elections,
We have the right to meet and ask questions of these preliminary candidates,
We have the right to fill out the ballot according to our true personal intent,
We have the right, on election day, to oppose the candidates who have been officially nominated and to instead vote for the candidates of our own choice!
We have the right to boycott the candidates who are either rich or politically powerful, or who aren’t qualified to be People’s Representatives,
People’s Representatives at the county level and below are directly elected by us — which actually means that we are indirectly electing the county chief, the district chief, and the president of the court, among others.
We believe that the ballot is the origin of power and that we are masters of power and masters of the country.
If we give our vote to a wicked man, then it would be no surprise if the officials in government and judiciary committed wicked acts.
We can no longer play dumb, and pretend we don’t understand what is going on.
We’re now uplifting our own spirits, and getting clarity of mind.
We, who wish with all our hearts to wake up the true holders of power of this country, hereby sign a declaration to run as candidates for the office of People’s Representative — for the purpose of enlivening those who possess both virtue and talent, who wish to uphold the interests of the people, and who are capable of navigating the political world, to step forward in front of the people and allow themselves to be elected.
We, who wish with all our hearts to wake up the true holders of power of this country, hereby sign a declaration to run as candidates for the office of People’s Representative, so as to awaken other voters, to help the scales fall from their eyes, and to tell them that they should only vote according to their own true wishes, and give their vote to only those they know, understand, and trust will dare to truly represent them.
Candidates for People’s Representative in Qianjiang City county-level, or county and township-level elections, hereby sign their names as follows:
1、姚立法 Yao Lifa 18972198964
2、伍立娟 Wu Lijuan 13707227753
3、潘向荣 Pan Xiangrong 15826894661
4、黄行芝 Huang Xingzhi 13117123901
5、李万凤 Li Wanfeng 13235535449
6、陈 平 Chen Ping 13545969565
7、刘应安 Liu Ying’an 13307228233
8、郑康元 Zheng Kangyuan 18871545639
9、彭 峰 Peng Feng 17763002016
10、李银秀 Li Yinxiu 15307224834
11、谢光武 Xie Guangwu 13886956727
12、王荣州 Wang Rongzhou 18972192635
13、张玉还 Zhang Yuhai 15027298826
14、彭 平 Peng Ping 13886993522
15、彭其林 Peng Qilin 13477476246
16、王兰英 Wang Lanying 15926057377
17、彭其玉 Peng Qiyu 15007227885
18、杨汉珍 Yang Hanzhen 13545951139
19、王 敏 Wang Min 15629292880
20、程 伟 Cheng Wei 13697367565
21、杨 军 Yang Jun 13098347832
22、吴海啸 Wu Haixiao 18672688297
23、彭桃山 Peng Taoshan 17764122210
24、陈中进 Chen Zhongjin 13277451381
25、李金萍 Li Jinping 13277681278
26、曾祥军 Zeng Xiangjun 13047147834
27、彭宣明 Peng Xuanming 13733405538
28、彭红颜 Peng Hongyan 13407285151
29、朱文芳 Zhu Wenfang 13886957415
30、余后群 Yu Houqun 18986958435
31、邱永红 Qiu Yonghong 15671161887
32、谢书珍 Xie Shuzhen 15549091682
33、余士平 Yu Shiping 13647289355
34、彭武松 Peng Wusong 13872966565
35、李家林 Li Jialin 13380885590
36、曾令鑫 Zeng Lingxin 15586301051
37、余桃珍 Yu Taozhen 15871898973
38、汪 华 Wang Hua 13477421986
39、彭晓星 Peng Xiaoxing 13886964517
40、郑文华 Zheng Wenhua 13907224856
41、万小云 Wan Xiaoyun 15027298155
42、康姣英 Kang Jiaoying 13972619064
43、彭冬香 Peng Dongxiang 13545973116
44、丁元顺 Ding Yuanshun 13687239542
45、李翠莲 Li Cuilian 15027296876
46、王冬梅 Wang Dongmei 15826928270
47、孙 惠 Sun Hui 13368295239
48、杨春光 Yang Chunguang 13972924798
49、廖梅枝 Liao Meizhi 15827972048
50、毛大明 Mao Daming 15671196630
51、朱春风 Zhu Chunfeng 18995999430
52、杨文平 Yang Wenping 15727289188
53、翟前枝 Zhai Qianzhi 13094298755
54、嵇金涛 Ji Jintao 15572801432
55、陈代玉 Chen Daiyu 17092691730
56、徐金平 Xu Jinping 18972192378
57、张高兵 Zhang Gaobing 13872967108
58、张文芳 Zhang Wenfang 07286201460
November 1, 2016
Record Number of Beijing Residents Declare Their Independent Candidacy for Local People’s Congress Seats, China Change, October 22, 2016
Financial Times: Lone Beijing independent intimidated ahead of China elections, November 4, 2016
November 1, 2016
Updated on November 17: 5-minute BBC video tells everything you need to know about Chinese elections.
Yaxue Cao: This year is also an election year in China, with county- and district-level elections of People’s Representatives on November 15. Independent candidates have sprung up everywhere, and China Change recently ran an article about the independent candidates from Beijing, including the group of 18 organized by Beijing resident Ye Jinghuan (野靖环). Over the months leading up to the vote, they’ve held training sessions on election law and the electoral process — some of which was presented by lawyers. But since their announcement of candidacy, they’ve been harassed by police. On the first day (October 24) of their neighborhood campaign, police came and stopped some of them from leaving home, and blocked interviews with foreign media. Some candidates elsewhere in China have been subject to criminal or administrative detention.
Hu Ping: Right, that’s what happened. I’ve also been following this news.
Yaxue Cao: This is unbelievable given that we both experienced the Haidian District People’s Representatives elections at Peking University in the fall of 1980. You were a graduate student in philosophy at the time, one of candidates who got elected. Now, 36 years later, China has changed in almost every way — yet in all these 36 years, no progress has been made to expand elections. Not only has it not changed, in fact it’s worse than it was 36 years ago. This is why I wanted to speak with you about elections in China today: the fact that there has been zero change on this, over more than three decades, is an important lens through which to evaluate China politically.
So first, please explain to us: what are “grassroots elections”?
Hu Ping: There are two kinds of grassroots elections in China: those at the county and district level for electing the deputies to the People’s Congress, and those for electing the head of a village. Both are direct elections. Before the Cultural Revolution there were similar elections that I participated in once when I was in senior high school — it was a single-candidate election (等额选举). This means that when you wanted to elect a representative, there was only one candidate. And that candidate had been selected in advance by the higher-ups — there was no competitive process, and the whole thing was just a formality. It was a joke.
After the Cultural Revolution, Chinese society had been ravaged, and there was a sense that China needed democracy. Even the Party conservatives thought that these were just grassroots elections, and allowing the people to vote in a few petty bureaucrats wouldn’t impact anything. In 1980, the Party center promulgated a new election law, which said that apart from the regular channels of nominating candidates—social organizations [affiliated with the Party], Party organizations, and unions [controlled by the Party]—individual citizens can also nominate themselves to be candidates, as long as they have three people to second their nomination. The updated rules also stated that candidates could engage in publicity. This was an opening for electioneering in China.
Back then, the elections weren’t held at the same time across the country. For instance, Shanghai’s and Sichuan’s were a bit earlier in the year, and Beijing’s was held last. This was probably because Beijing is the political capital, and political passions there run hotter than elsewhere. Stacking Beijing last was about limiting the influence of the elections.
As elections were held around China, university campuses became very active. At Fudan University in Shanghai, undergraduates in the Chinese language department, philosophy department, and also graduate students, became candidates. This was reported in “China Youth Daily.” The elections in Beijing were held in November, and Haidian District, which has a concentration of universities, came last. Back then Li Shengping (李胜平), who was studying in Xicheng District at one of Peking University’s branch campuses, stood for election and won. He was one of the activists involved in the Democracy Wall (民主墙) and an editor of the “Beijing Spring” (北京之春) magazine. He was also involved in the April 5th incident, 1976.
Because Haidian District had so many universities, the election activities there were especially active. Peking University was divided into two electoral constituencies: one for faculty, workers, and their families, and another for students and graduate students. The constituency for undergrads and graduate students elected two representatives, and 20-30 people ran as candidates. A range of activities were held to attract votes, including public debates, question-and-answer sessions, and so on. For about a month or more Peking University was soaked in the atmosphere of the election.
An important feature of the Peking University elections is that even though the post was for a largely irrelevant district representative, the political ideas proposed were of national significance: namely, how to foster the democratization of China. Actually, everyone was clear on what was really going on, which is that we were simply using the platform of an election to express our views to the government. I suspect that this is something the authorities didn’t anticipate. They thought that because the issues county- and district-level deputies can get involved in are so minor, there’s no political significance to the process at all.
Yaxue Cao: At that time I was a freshman still finding my ways on campus, and I remember during the elections there were people crowded near the The Triangle (三角地) every day, looking at the election-related big and small character posters. Even though I didn’t quite understand what was going on, I browsed some of them. I remember the back walls of the glass display board at The Triangle were covered too, and I remember reading an A4-sized poster titled “John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.”
Hu Ping: Also, during the elections students organized their own media, reporting on all the electoral developments. Some candidates also organized their own election teams. Back then the president of Peking University was very open-minded about it and provided the school auditorium for the debates. I myself held two debates at that auditorium.
Li Shengping’s triumph in the Xicheng District election put some of the old conservatives in Beijing on guard. The municipal government dispatched an internal notice demanding that party members not get involved in elections. This shows that the conservatives at the time were terrified of the idea of even a grassroots vote. But the entire social atmosphere was pursuing change, student passions were high, and most of the campus leaders and administrators were fairly open-minded and liberal — because so many people had experienced horrifying political persecution in the past.
At the end of 1980 the Solidarity Movement in Poland was formed. The conservative Hu Qiaomu (胡乔木) wrote an internal letter saying that the same sort of thing might transpire in China, and the Party elite started to get very nervous. The whole political atmosphere quickly became much more stern. After the election there was a rumor saying that the top Party leadership were very unhappy with the elections and wanted to crack down — they only reason they didn’t was because of internal disagreement.
Later they revised the election law and limited a number of election activities. At the next election in 1983 (they were held every three years), the Communist Party was running the so-called “anti-spiritual pollution” political campaign (反精神污染运动), and the political atmosphere was heavy, so there weren’t very many election activities held then.
Yaxue Cao: I was still on campus in 1983, but I don’t have any memory of the elections that year — so it mustn’t have been anything like 1980. In 1980, Chen Ziming (陈子明) was elected as a representative for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. You wrote in an essay that he was the convenor of the group of representatives drawn from universities in Haidian District. What did all you do as representatives?
Hu Ping: We proposed some draft resolutions, voted against or abstained from voting on some government work reports, and so on. It was all trivial stuff. Nothing we did had any impact on the big picture.
By the time 1986 came around, the atmosphere had loosened up again, and election activities started up once more. For instance, at Peking University Li Xianbin (李淑贤), a lecturer in the physics department, was elected as a representative, and she was of course the wife of Fang Lizhi (方励之). Professor Fang had already gained national prominence and influence at universities around China for his involvement in pro-liberalization and democratization activities, and the Communist Party saw him as an enormous headache. Fang was engaged in his own enthusiastic electioneering at the China University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui. Then the 1986 student movement started, beginning at CUST and then spreading to Shanghai and Beijing, with students taking to the streets. The police made some arrests, but when this stirred up even more students to go to Tiananmen Square to protest, they quickly let them go.
The lively political atmosphere throughout 1986 struck dread into the Communist Party leadership, and they made a major decision: they expelled Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan (刘宾雁), and Wang Ruowang (王若望), and others, from the Party — and the reform-minded Party Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) was also forced out. The political atmosphere once again became severe.
What all this means is that before the 1989 movement, the hardliners at the top of the Communist Party had already lashed out against a tide of liberalism and democracy, but because China was still just emerging from the calamity of the Cultural Revolution, social elites — including some members of the top echelon of the Party — all actually sought some degree of freedom and democracy, especially the youth and the intellectuals. The yearning was deep. In China at that time, everyone was increasingly dissatisfied with the half-hearted opening up that the authorities had engaged in. This was followed up with a half-hearted repression, which didn’t truly strike fear into people’s hearts, and thus aroused even more disaffection. It was against this backdrop that the democracy movement of 1989 exploded.
After the June 4 massacre, the Communist Party was completely panicked and they viewed every collective activity as a major threat, and their attacks on dissent became fiercer. The whole political atmosphere of the 1990s was desolate and grim.
By the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, independent candidates began appearing again, such as Xu Zhiyong (许志永) and others. And again, it was at the universities — for instance Xu Zhiyong was a teacher at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications when he was elected. But these elections were nothing like the 1980s, where all the talk was about national politics, and ideals; in the latter case, the election was limited to how they’ll discharge their duty as people’s representatives. For all that, independent candidature in and of itself represents a strong orientation toward democratic principles and values, so these elections are still enormously meaningful. Furthermore, grassroots elections are the only way that Chinese citizens can actually cast votes.
Yaxue Cao: Xu Zhiyong was elected a People’s representative in both 2003 and 2006, but by 2011 (at that point elections had been changed to once every five years), the authorities resorted to all sorts of measures to prevent him from being re-elected. A few years ago you wrote an article about grassroots elections, noting that after three decades, the bureaucratic level of the posts haven’t risen — it remains at county- and district-level People’s Congresses, and village elections. Another observation you made is that the quality of them has dropped, which has manifested in the general lack of interest in the elections by voters, given that they’ve often simply become a show manipulated by officials, who receive bribes and crush independent competitors. So, given that the authorities have absolutely no intention to roll out genuine elections, why don’t they just abolish them and appoint the representatives or village officials directly themselves? Isn’t that the outcome anyway? Why go to the trouble of staging them?
Hu Ping: After June 4, the Party began to regard liberalization and democratization as the number one enemy, and there was basically no one at the top echelon of the Party who had any sympathy or support for democracy. The suppression never let up, and China’s entire political ecology underwent a fundamental change. But the authorities don’t really have any need to promulgate a law abolishing the grassroots election system altogether, because it’s too insignificant. With continuous repression in the 20 some years following the June 4 massacre, cynicism is rampant in Chinese society, and the majority of Chinese people feel no attachment or sympathy with the past movement of liberalization and democracy, and they don’t get involved. So, the fact that there are so many people now stepping forward as candidates is just amazing. The risks they’re taking are so much greater than those we took back then, so it’s worthy of our wholehearted support and close attention. Every single person who runs as an independent candidate, without exception, becomes a target for the authorities to attack. The corollary to this is that it proves that independent candidature is itself a challenge, regardless of what your policies or politics are.
Yaxue Cao: I remember during the Wukan incident [in 2011] a group of public intellectuals traveled there to offer their support, and to get involved and be election observers. A few days ago I was chatting with He Depu (何德普) about this, and he said that this year public intellectuals didn’t have the slightest enthusiasm in the elections. Might this reflect the current political atmosphere in China?
Hu Ping: Since taking power, Xi Jinping has taken systematic steps to shut down the space for expression for Chinese liberal-leaning intellectuals, which had been constrained to begin with. Even the Gongshi (Consensus) website and the Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine have been shut down and are no longer tolerated — and you can well imagine the terrorizing effect this has. I believe that the international community, including the United States and other Western countries, is seeing more and more clearly that the Chinese regime has had no intention of carrying out political and democratic reforms. On the contrary, as the Chinese economy grows bigger and bigger, the regime has become more confident and armed with more resources. These are obvious developments, and even some of the China apologists in the West are seeing that things are not panning out as they expected.
Yaxue Cao: U.S. policy toward China has for decades been built on the assumption that, once China develops and the middle class grows strong, democracy will naturally come. Many have been dazzled by changes in China. China watchers are awed, some even succumbed to admiring the efficiency of authoritarian rule. But at the same time, elections in China have made no progress whatsoever, in terms of both level and quality. Stacking these two pictures of China together, you can’t support the assumption that the course of economic development will nurture the course of democratization.
Hu Ping: It was predicated on a mistaken theory to begin with — and yet just what lies at the heart of the Communist Party, and just how the regime has made it through all these years, I believe Western observers still don’t have a clear understanding of. Not only are they unclear, but probably a lot of Chinese aren’t clear, because the twists and transformations of the Party have no precedent that we can reference. Actually, the principle is quite simple: After the extreme centralism of the Mao era resulted in widespread political terror and total economic collapse, after Mao died Chinese society from top to bottom, inside and outside the Party, experienced a strong impetus toward political and economic reform, and the 1980s was a reflection of this. The Soviet Union and Eastern European countries also went through their own democratic transition via this route. But in China the June 4 massacre reversed the trend and history — and also changed the history of the world. You cannot have any hope that a regime built on such a massacre is going to engage in any liberalization and democracy. And so not only the Chinese people, but the entire world is faced with a stubborn and powerful dictatorship. I think people haven’t realizes the seriousness of this problem and haven’t devoted enough attention and understanding to it.
Yaxue Cao: In early October, professor Arthur Waldron at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a speech in New York that we published on the China Change website. He said that his greatest concern was that Western countries didn’t see autocracy as a feature of communism, but as a feature of China.
Hu Ping: What’s needed right now is to have a complete narrative of China’s political course over the past three decades, letting people know that China has undergone a very special process that has led to today’s China. As you examine this process, you will see that the Chinese are not any different from foreigners. So when assessing China don’t just extrapolate from economic determinism to a claim of Chinese exceptionalism. The damage this does is divert attention from how to counter the challenges and deal with the threat posed by a communist dictatorship, to instead being about how to accommodate and accept them. This is dangerous. You should be changing it, not accepting it. When the bar is continually lowered to: “We are fine with it as long as we avoid war,” isn’t that aiding them?
Yaxue Cao: Once the free world begins to make concessions on universal values, the world order will change.
Hu Ping: It’s already changing. If accommodation becomes the new engagement policy, the West will inflict disasters on itself. China is not North Korea. North Korea has no ability to corrupt other countries, but China will corrupt the whole world.
Yaxue Cao: In looking back on the 1980 elections in Peking University, you refuted the idea that “democratization depends on a market economy and a strong middle class.” You pointed out that, in 1980, the Cultural Revolution had just ended, and few people knew what democracy or freedom actually looked like. You wrote: “We discovered, spontaneously and indigenously, the idea of constitutional democracy and its operation.”
Hu Ping: The New York Times interviewed me recently, and I also talked about this. Chinese propaganda wants you to believe that the concept of freedom and democracy is a Western one, but where did the Westerners get it? It was a response to lasting religious wars, persecution, and terror. People were persecuted for different beliefs, for different interpretations and views, and this led to demand for tolerance, for freedom of belief, and freedom of expression. Following the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese wanted tolerance, and it was spontaneous.
When Eastern Europe democratized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had no middle class, no market economy. Mongolia had no market economy when it democratized. Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun (习仲勋), while in office, proposed that China needs a law to protect dissent. He had had no western education, where did he get that idea? Because he was persecuted for his speech, and he came to the realization that a line should be drawn between the rights of the people and the power of the government, and that certain freedoms must be granted and protected. The popular demand for freedom was the real cause of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. But the June 4 massacre changed not only the course of China, but also the course of the world.
Yaxue Cao: Yes. The world has yet to confront this reality. Thank you.
Hu Ping (胡平) lives in New York and edits Beijing Spring (《北京之春》), “a monthly Chinese-language magazine dedicated to the promotion of human rights, democracy and social justice in China.”
Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits the China Change website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Mo Zhixu, July 1, 2016
2016 is also an election year in China, in case you are not aware of it.
A struggle is once again brewing in Wukan. Four years ago, after a protracted struggle during which village representative Xue Jinbo (薛锦波) lost his life under mysterious circumstances in police custody, the people of Wukan were able to elect a village leader that they trusted. But several years later, they still haven’t been able to win back their rights and things have again become unsettled. Police recently detained Lin Zulian (林祖恋), the elected head of Wukan’s village committee, and then put him on television to confess to accepting bribes.
And in just the past few days in Gansu Province, independent candidates for local People’s Congresses, like Qu Mingxue (瞿明学), have been detained on criminal charges of “sabotaging elections.”
It wasn’t long ago, back in the heyday of Weibo, that everyone was talking about how the village elections in Wukan and the appearance of independent People’s Congress candidates were hopeful signs for grassroots democracy and politics in China. Back then, both media and netizens placed considerable hope in these phenomena. But a short five years later, we’re once again in an “election year” and the situation looks as bleak as ever.
High Hopes for Grassroots Democracy
After 1989, China found itself in a deep freeze as far as political participation was concerned. As radical transformation became impossible, and what came to replace it after Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” in 1992 were various visions of gradual change premised on the spread of market forces in China.
Entering the 21st century, China joined the WTO and successfully held the Beijing Olympics. Economic development went relatively smoothly, leading to the rapid formation of new social strata. At the same time, the authorities targeted particular opposition groups with continuous repression and severe crackdowns. In this atmosphere, there’s been a gradual withering-away of the idea of radical transformation that had guided the tragic movement in 1989. In its place, gradualism has become the new mainstream — even politically correct — discourse.
The main evidence supporting these visions for gradual change have been phenomena like grassroots democracy, legal rights defense, the opening up of discursive space through commercialized media, spaces for online expression, and the development of civil society and NGOs. Grassroots democracy has quite an important place in this discourse. This is because rights defense, the opening of discursive space, and the development of civil society are more facilitative or necessary conditions for political transition, or else serve as substitutes for political participation in certain periods where such participation is difficult or impossible.
Grassroots elections, on the other hand, is the essence of political participation itself; moreover, they can be seen as the true beginning of the gradual political transition made possible by the maturation of those other conditions.
At the end of the 1990s when the Law of Self-Rule by Village Committees (《村委会自治法》) appeared, the prospect of direct elections or use of “write-in ballots” first sparked hopes that grassroots democracy might lead China’s democratic transition. However, the practice of village-level democracy remained within the scope of self-rule and didn’t affect the overall political system. Nevertheless, grassroots democracy at this level has been put under all sorts of control and finds itself breathing what may be its last, dying breath. As Chang Ping (长平) recently wrote in “Wukan: China’s Domestic Experiment with ‘One Country Two Systems’”: “Within the overall dictatorial environment, small-scale democratic elections face all sorts of difficulties and inevitably wind up at a dead end.”
Comparatively speaking, the appearance of independent candidates in township- or county-level people’s congress elections was invested with even greater hope and even seen as a possible transition path. This is because, under China’s current electoral system, it remains possible for members of the public to nominate their own candidates or even to elect a write-in candidate by selecting the box of “other” on the ballot. This is how Yao Lifa (姚立法) got elected in Qianjiang City, Hubei, for example, back in 1998.
Independent candidates are formally allowed under the current system and there is a theoretical chance of ultimately being successful. And when you factor in the new market forces and online modes of communication, it’s possible for regional independent candidates to become known throughout China and even internationally. For these reasons, many people hoped that independent candidacy might serve as a path to broader political participation and, in the process, advance China’s democratic transition. For these same reasons, whether it was at the beginning of the new Hu-Wen regime in 2003 or during the heyday of Weibo, grassroots elections, and especially independent candidates, were seen as the next step and something in which people could invest their hopes for political transition. For a time, more hope seemed to be invested in it than internet expression, participation in public interest causes, and rights-defense activities.
The Uselessness of China’s ‘Elections’
It’s always been open to debate, however, whether or not China’s electoral system can sustain such hopes. For a variety of reasons, mainland Chinese observers often take Taiwan’s transition to democracy as a point of reference. There’s no doubt that elections played quite a significant role in Taiwan’s democratic transition, and for this reason Chinese gradualists never tire of talking about the subject. However, comparing the electoral systems in Taiwan and mainland China, as well as Taiwan’s road to democracy, we can see that it’s much more difficult under China’s electoral system for independent candidates to play the important role of pushing forward this transition.
First of all, the elections in which they compete take place at too low a level. Everyone knows that People’s Congresses at all levels in China are rubber stamps, and Chinese elections are merely decorative to the dictatorship. China’s so-called elections are limited in that no executive offices are chosen through direct elections and even elections for delegates to People’s Congress are restricted to the county and township levels only. Taiwan, on the other hand, had put in place direct elections for county commissioners, and representatives in both county and provincial assemblies in as early as 1954. Starting in the late 1960s, there were competitive elections for some seats of the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan.
Direct elections thus cut across executive and legislative branches and span from the central government down to the local level. It was only because of this that elections were able to have a social influence and promote transition to democracy in Taiwan. And under these circumstances, the officials and legislators who ran for office could form a political core outside of the KMT. Whether it was the 1979 demonstrations by Huang Shin-chieh (黃信介) and other members of the opposition in the Kaohsiung Incident or the formation of the Tangwai Research Association for Public Policy, these independent politicians were able to have an impact and eventually lead to the formation of an opposition party because of Taiwan’s particular electoral system and election practice.
A second difference between Taiwan and mainland China is that many constraints have been placed on China’s electoral system. The essence of dictatorship is total control over society and the elimination of spontaneous political participation. Since China’s electoral system is merely decorative, it was designed from its inception with all sorts of restrictions and mechanisms to limit participation.
So-called independent candidates can only take part in elections for county and township people’s congresses, but even these elections have been painstakingly engineered so that small electoral districts are coordinated with the political structure in order to facilitate control and mobilization. In order to prevent members of the public from nominating their own candidates, an “incubation phase” has been set up to ensure that any unacceptable individuals can be weeded out from the formal list of candidates. Given all of these various measures, it takes a miracle for any candidate who isn’t part of the political system to get elected. This not only considerably dampens enthusiasm to participate; it also means that it’s nothing but a pipe dream to hope that elections will somehow lead to a democratic transition in China.
Finally, we must consider the long interval between elections in China. Because Taiwan holds elections for executive and legislative offices over three levels of government from central to local, contests are frequent and “election season” is always just around the corner. Under Taiwan’s particular form of authoritarian reality, “election season” served to expand political participation and ultimately created favorable conditions for Taiwan’s democratic transition. China’s “decorative” electoral system, on the other hand, only allows for direct election of county and township people’s congress delegates once every five years, meaning that “election season” arrives much less often in China. And considering how much participation is suppressed, this long five-year interval between elections makes it difficult to gather a sustained accumulation of experience.
Altogether, it means that there’s little hope that independent candidacy alone will do much to promote democracy. This is why, from almost the very beginning, those who have advocated for independent candidacy have all made even higher demands for the electoral system.
They expect the electoral system to undergo a number of reforms. First, they want to see direct elections at higher levels of government, including for executive offices. Others want to see the system of village elections expanded to direct elections for government positions at the township level and above. In 1998, 6,000 voters in Buyun Township in Suining, Sichuan (四川遂宁步云乡), chose the first township head elected through direct vote since 1949. Afterwards, similar experiments were conducted in Shenzhen and other places. This attracted much attention from the media and liberals, but in the end it never led anywhere. In recent years, among the reform proposals Prof. Yu Jianrong (于建嵘) has repeatedly been peddling, county-level direct election reform has been a core proposal.
A Reality Check
Unfortunately, things have gone in precisely the opposite direction from what people had hoped for. The expansion of market forces has led to the emergence of a variety of rights demands and stimulated the desire of new social strata to take part in politics. These new social strata have gravitated toward independent candidates. The craze for independent candidates that appeared on Weibo back in 2011 was based on these socio-economic changes. However, thanks to the political logic in place since 1989, the current system hasn’t changed in any way to accommodate these new demands. Instead, the regime continued to pursue its policies of stability maintenance. The stronger these social forces became, the more rigid the stability-focused regime grew. In this way, Chinese authorities have come to see independent candidacy as a form of protest that must be restricted and suppressed.
The irony is that even when independent candidates have a desire to work inside the existing system, the authorities see them as representing the “other.”
Five years ago, during the online craze for independent candidates, I reminded people that running for office was a form of protest: “Those running for People’s Congress want to broaden political participation in China, but the stability-maintenance regime is focused on using autocratic deterrence and management and repression of society, including the elimination of political participation. Standing for election thus constitutes a direct challenge to the stability-maintenance system and must be suppressed. The fate of people like Liu Ping (刘萍) is proof of this point. I hope that Li Chengpeng and others who want to run as independent People’s Congress candidates will be prepared.”
What happened afterward proved that my judgment was correct: “Under the stability-maintenance system, there will be no hesitation about repressing independent candidates or blocking information about elections.” Such a system can’t even tolerate the presence of an independent candidate as a token of democracy. Given that running as an independent candidate is a form of protest, it will inevitably meet with even greater repression. The criminal detention of Qu Mingxue and others demonstrates this escalating repression. Of course it also demonstrates further that any hope of using independent candidacy to further the transition to democracy is unfounded.
But protest is never insignificant. Some people shy away and retreat after having taken part in this form of protest, but others like Liu Ping emerge from their participation in grassroots elections to follow even more resolute paths of protest. In this respect, elections may not be able to change the system, but taking part in them can have a transformative effect on us as people. Once we cast off our false hopes, perhaps our struggle will finally generate some real hope.
Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.
Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:
原文：莫之许《独立参选的五年一梦》, translated by China Change.