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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
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.
By Wang Tiancheng
Leading up to the Party’s 18th Congress, the phrase “political reform” had buzzed around like a butterfly, fluttering with pretty hopes. Then, 15 minutes into Hu Jintao’s speech on the 8th, that buzz fell silent; by the time Hu finished his speech, it was as good as death. When we talk about political reform in China, what are we talking about exactly? Different people will have different answers to this question, and according to the Party, it has never stopped reforming for all these years. Weighed in before the Party Congress opened, the Economist said that “ultimately, this newspaper hopes, political reform would make the party answerable to the courts and, as the purest expression of this, free political prisoners.” Today let’s hear what a Chinese dissident and a renowned constitutional scholar has to say in a concise manner and where he sets the bar for political reform.
When the Chinese student movement erupted in 1989, Wang Tiancheng (王天成) was graduating from the Law Department (now the School of Law) of Peking University with a master’s degree. He became a lecturer and edited a legal publication there. In 1992 he was arrested for founding a party called the “Chinese Literal Democratic Party” and sentenced to five years in prison. After years of harassment by the Chinese government, he left China in 2008 for the US where he has conducted research at several universities. His new book, The Grand Transition: A Research Framework for the Strategy to Democratize China (《大转型：中国民主化战略研究框架》), published earlier this year in Hong Kong, examines over 30 cases of democratic transition around the world and lays out a blueprint of how a democratic China can be realized. An immediate sensation in the circles of Chinese dissidents and liberal intellectuals, banned promptly by the CCP’s Propaganda Department, the book is widely regarded as the most important work in Chinese political science in the last two decades. With Mr. Wang’s permission, we offer you a translation of his comment, originally published on the BBC Chinese website on Nov. 12. –Yaxue
Let me start by taking stock of a few events and the messages behind them. Together they paint the political scene of current China:
- Rapid economic growth has so far been the most important source of legitimacy of the Chinese Community Party’s rule. But the good time of two-digit annual growth has gone forever. People are deeply concerned that an economic crisis is fast approaching;
- To advance his political standing, Bo Xilai, a member of the princeling class, drew wide attention to himself by “singing red and striking down black.” But by an unexpected turn of events, his career folded dramatically in front of the world, and he faced corruption and other serious charges;
- Public security spending has skyrocketed to exceed military spending, and much of it is spending on “stability maintenance.” The actual spending is probably even higher than the official numbers;
- At first, Wen Jiabao only talked to foreigners about the need for democracy and political reform; then he talked about it frequently to domestic Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, Wu Bangguo (吴邦国) stated that China must insist on “Five Wont’s” (“China will not engage in a multi-party system; China will not promote diverse ideologies; China will not institute the separation of the three powers; China will not adopt federalism; China will not implement privatization”);
- Wang Qishan (王岐山), it’s said, recommended Tocqueville’s Old Regime and the French Revolution to his colleagues, for what Tocqueville said in that book: It’s the most dangerous time for a bad regime to begins to reform itself; that’s when it can be more easily overthrown;
- The public’s craving, and call, for political changes have never been stronger.
These circumstances and the messages behind them present us an ever clearer picture of a gathering storm. Now, the question is, will the new leaders installed by the 18th Party Congress embark on political reform?
Key to Changes
Leadership transition always inspires hope among many people, and indeed it is an important cultural phenomenon in contemporary China. Ten years ago when new leaders took over the scepter, many held high expectations for them, hoping they would implement a “new deal” and move towards political reform.
The same is being repeated today. Disillusioned with Hu and Wen, people are certainly more cautious than before with what hopes they harbor for the new leaders, but all in all people are even more enthusiastic than 10 years ago discussing, and speculating about whether the next leaders will kick start political reform, because, this time around, they feel China has come to a point where “it has no choice but to change.”
Leading up to the 18th Party Congress, there had been a constant stream of online “revelations,” by some overseas Chinese websites in particular, that the incoming leaders intended to push for political reform. These messages, it now seems, had a clear intent—to mitigate the widely palpable hunger for change.
I will refrain from speculating on whether Mr. Xi Jinping will, or will not, implement political reform. I want to simply point out one thing: the key to gauge China’s transition toward a democracy is to see whether or not freedom of association can be realized and independent political parties can be allowed to exist.
Reform or Transform?
The idea of a gradual reform has been prevalent since post-1989. People of this credo believe that reforms should begin with small issues that would not touch on the fundamental principles of the current system and would not challenge the ruling status of the Communist Party. Most of these people have not proposed to lift the ban on forming political parties, even fewer of them have suggested a direct election in the near future for selecting the country’s leaders.
To this faction of people, the most important thing lies in persuading the ruling group to launch political reform. This necessarily means that the bar cannot be set too high as to seriously threaten the Party’s ruling status. Or the reformist demand would be unrealistic for the ruling group to accept.
But what’s so obvious to all is that, without lifting party ban and holding national election, those major changes have even less of a chance to take place. In reality, by steering clear of these two demands, people touting gradualism are putting China’s democratic transformation off to an indefinite future.
Meanwhile, the so-called “political system reform” is an ambiguous term, first used in the early 1980s by the government. For them, the socialist economic system and political system were never to be changed; changes could only be made to certain ways of doing things. So they created terms like “economic system reform” and “political system reform.”
It’s time now to move beyond the vague expression of “political reform” and replace it with a clear demand for democratic transition.
Democratic transition includes two stages: liberalization and democratization. Liberalization refers to the ability to exercise the freedom of expression and the freedom of forming political parties. [For the Communist Party,] the key is to tolerate the existence of oppositions. Democratization refers to free and direct election of the government.
When talking about China’s political transformation, some people often lament the lack of viable opposition parties, and from there, they find justification for the one-party system. So evident are the paradox and confusion of such a notion: the non-existence of viable alternative parties is the result of one-party’s dictatorial rule; for it in turn to become the justification for the one-party system is inherent to the self-perpetuating nature of that dictatorial system.
Over the last 30 years, nearly 70 countries in the world have transformed themselves into democracies. Only a small fraction of these countries, such as Brazil, Uruguay, and South Korea, had strong opposition parties prior to the transformation, and they were the benefit of these countries’ respective historical legacy: They had been democracies before and they were returning to democracies, and the military coups that had overthrown democracy didn’t eradicate the existing political organizations altogether.
Most of the other countries, such as the eastern European countries whom we know more about, didn’t have any independent, influential political parties before the transformation occurred, with perhaps the rare exception of Solidarity Union in Poland, if it can be seen as a political party.
Over the course of democratic struggles, there can be seeds or early forms of democratic parties. But rapid growth of independent political parties is only possible when the ban on forming parties is lifted. In 1988, as soon as Hungary issued new laws to allow free associations, various parties quickly emerged. In 1989 when Bulgaria abolished from its Constitution articles about the Communist Party’s leading status, opposition parties quickly came into being.
When, in September, 1986, the Democratic Progressive Party announced its establishment in the Grand Hotel in Taipei, Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) government acquiesced its existence without clamping down. It was seen as the beginning of Taiwan’s democratic transformation.
Lifting the party ban is the beginning stage of democratic transformation, the core of liberalization. Democratic transformation is only possible when the monopolizing party is willing to accept multi-party competition and embrace the risk of losing power. In eastern European countries, after the transformation, the communist parties have all re-organized into Social Democratic Parties and taken turns to govern with parties evolved from oppositional organizations. In Taiwan we know that’s the case too.
My conclusion is therefore clear: To gauge whether or not political change is coming to China, the key is whether the ban on forming political parties will be abolished or contravened, whether the Communist Party, in power for over 60 years now, will engage in equal competition with other political parties, and whether it will face up to the issue of the party ban or avoid it.
I don’t always read the local papers, and for the most part my Chinese co-workers don’t either. So when something big comes to Nanjing, we don’t usually hear about it until it has passed, but we can always tell that something is approaching.
For example, about three weeks ago we noticed a shift in our favorite DVD shops. The most visible one, located on a busy street across from the foreign student housing of a large university, was not only shut, but completely empty. Just days before it had displayed at least 1,000 pirated DVD’s, CD’s and computer games. Two other nearby shops were closed as well. When we returned home, the two shops nearby that sell more than just DVD’s had been shut down too.
At first we didn’t think much of it. DVD shops get raided from time to time, and we figured the pirated goods would be back soon. China likes making a show of crushing these illicit goods, but doesn’t seem to actually care about the practice. Over 5 years in China and I’ve never seen a DVD shop be completely shut down.
A few days later I went back to check if the smallest shop had replenished their stock of DVD’s. The woman loudly stated, “We don’t sell those now.” I looked around the shop for a few minutes and sure enough, all of their DVD’s were gone. I started to leave. The woman behind the counter whispered to me “等一会儿” (deng yihuir, wait a moment). I let a man slide past me out of the store, and the cashier proceeded to pull out a stack of thirty to forty new DVD’s. The ones I was looking for weren’t there, so I asked her when they would have their full selection again ad she replied ominously, “Soon.”
Not long after that incident the other DVD shops started reopening, with new measures to protect against raids, but the biggest one remained shuttered. Something seemed a little different this time around.
Then last week on my way to work I saw more than 50 police directing traffic in just under 2 miles. At the intersection closest to the government buildings, there were nearly 20 police. When I got to work my favorite breakfast cart was missing too. Something big was clearly going on.
In the office my co-worker noticed that I didn’t have my usual 煎饼 (jianbing- tasty breakfast crepe) with me, and mentioned that the vendor she buys her breakfast from every morning was missing too. There were also several comments made about the lack of vacant hotel rooms in the city that week. Practically every room was full, but we had no idea why.
The following day we finally realized that it was all connected. What had caused all of these disruptions to our daily lives? An article from People’s Daily explained:
“NANJING, Nov. 10 (Xinhua) — Luo Zhijun was elected secretary of east China’s Jiangsu Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Thursday.
Luo was elected to the post at the first plenary session of the 12th CPC Jiangsu Provincial Committee held in Nanjing, the provincial capital.” – link was added to clarify the title
Apparently there had been an election. Of my co-workers, not a single one had been aware that a new provincial leader had been chosen. My co-workers didn’t seem to be upset by their lack of input in the decision making process, but one had some strong words for them about her missing breakfast.
A week later, things have largely returned to normal. Traffic is once again hectic and uncontrolled, my breakfast cart has returned with crepes and pickled vegetables, the racks of the DVD stores are being restocked with illicit goods, and the Party has picked another leader without any input from the people.