By Sharon Lafraniere
The New York Times
While Chinese leaders speak in favor of political reform, local authorities routinely deny voters the chance to choose a political representative of their choice.
Periodic elections to neighborhood People’s Congresses are as close to participatory democracy as this nation comes. Of the many grass-roots candidates running here this year, Qiao Mu, an energetic 41-year-old journalism professor in the capital, seemed one of the better bets.
He was well known and liked on the campus of the Beijing Foreign Studies University, his election district. He ran an innovative campaign, making full use of social networks and other Internet tools. He amassed a cadre of enthusiastic student campaigners, and he aimed for practical improvements in campus life: a faster Internet connection and permission for students to study in the spare classrooms instead of the crowded cafeteria.
He lost anyway. A university vice president – a largely unknown personage whose campaign amounted to some posters – collected three times as many votes.
Qiao said authorities did all they could to stymie him, keeping his name off the ballot, threatening his student volunteers, even forcibly collecting the little red bookmarks he had printed with the slogan: “I am the master of my ballot.”
“The harassment started from the very beginning,” he said in an interview in his university office, still cluttered with campaign paraphernalia he never got to distribute. “It is a shame, because I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “All we did as follow China’s Constitution and election law.”
His experience demonstrates an underlying political doctrine of today’s China: While Chinese leaders speak in favor of political reform, local authorities routinely deny voters the chance to choose a political representative of their choice.
Such official machinations have become more obvious and more intense this year – a telling indicator of the government’s paranoia over a greatly increased pool of independent candidates, even given the near powerlessness of the congresses.
A final assessment is still months away. But Li Fan, an election expert who has been monitoring the elections around the country, said the votes were more rigged than ever.
“It is a big step backward from previous years,” said Li, director of the World and China Institute, a nongovernmental research center in Beijing. The government, obsessed with the notion that political stability must be maintained, “has taken strict control of the elections,” he said.
Inspired by the potential of Internet services like China’s Twitter-like microblogs to create visibility and impetus, an unprecedented number of independent candidates are trying to contest the Communist Party’s chosen candidates for 2 million seats on the local party congresses, China’s lowest parliamentary tier.
Haidian District, a Beijing sector of 1.6 million residents where Qiao sought office, is particularly hospitable to such challenges. The district, chock-a-block with universities and known for its comparatively liberal bent, elected China’s first independent candidate in 1984. According to Li, Haidian fielded 23 of Beijing’s roughly 28 successful independent candidates in 2003 and all 16 independent candidates elected in the capital in 2006.
But this Nov. 8, Li said, although Beijing had a surge of 40-50 grass-roots candidates, not one was elected. The same held true in voting on Sept. 8 in Wuhan, a city in east-central China, and on Nov. 18 in Shanghai, he said. The local governments “do not want to see any independent candidate be seated,” he said.
Qiao, a Communist Party member who advocates democratic reforms, seemed an especially intriguing candidate. As a student in 1989, he participated in the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square. Later he went to work for Beijing government’s foreign affairs office, where he said he was disgusted by the “ridiculous ideology,” low pay, corruption and bureaucracy.
He returned to academia, joining the faculty of the Foreign Studies University in 2002. Now an associate professor and director of the Center for International Communications Studies, he cultivates ties with students, regularly joining them for noodles and rice in the cafeteria. He announced his candidacy on Sept. 28, he said, because “it is my right.”
Some of Qiao’s tactics were downright avant-garde by China’s standards, such as going online to sell book bags emblazoned with his photo, and touring dormitories with his wife and daughter in tow. But his proposals were strictly nonpolitical, such as moving a smelly garbage collection site.
Nonetheless, before he even gathered student volunteers for a meeting, he said, his department’s party leader urged him to withdraw, telling him, “What you have said about democracy has made the authorities very angry.”
Undeterred, he collected more than 500 signatures from faculty and students – more than 50 times the number required by law. The university responded by announcing that the university’s vice president and another university official had more signatures and would be the only names on the ballot.
Qiao then tried to mount a write-in campaign, but one by one, his student volunteers quit. Some said that school officials had telephoned their parents, warning them that their children were engaged in illegal activities.
“They even told students that they were going to ask their parents to come to the school,” said one graduate student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Most students thought it was so unfair.”
Rumors swirled that Qiao was a tool of the U.S. Embassy or the foreign media, or that he was on his way out. School officials demanded that students turn in their red bookmarks and barred Qiao from the dormitories. University officials repeatedly advised him that government and university policies and regulations carried more weight than an election law.
In the final week before the vote, he said, his telephone calls were monitored and two security officers tailed him. Except for email, his Internet tools were disabled, a situation that persists to this day. That included three microblog accounts on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter; another blog with his scholarly articles; a video site with his campaign clips; and two social networking pages, where 20,000 people followed his posts.
“It seemed like my mouth was forced shut and my ears were cut off,” he said.
On Nov. 8, he said, colorful banners on campus urged people to “vote gloriously” and “enhance the rule of law.” Of 8,030 people who cast ballots, 1,296 wrote in his name. The university vice president won with 4,127 votes.
Given the stacked playing field, Qiao considers that a victory. “What they did to me,” he said, “shows their weakness and my strength.”
By Sharon Lafraniere