The polls closed at noon and by 2 p.m. Yao Lifa was hunkered down
inside a restaurant with a group of first-time candidates, waiting
to hear who had been elected to their local assembly.
Mr. Yao phoned another candidate who was supposed to be joining
the gathering. Their conversation ended abruptly. Yao looked around
the table, his can-do smile down a notch. He explained that they
would be one short as the police had detained their colleague for
telling voters to write his name on the ballot. "The pressure just
gets more and more," he sighs.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese are going to the polls this year
to vote for their local assembly, offering a small measure of
political choice in a one-party state. But independent candidates
are finding their path blocked by local officials that flout
election law to favor their own loyalists. The result is a
democratic gesture that offers little hope to reformers pushing for
bottom-up alternatives to authoritarianism.
"The local governments aren't prepared to reform. They keep their
traditional ways and don't allow outsiders to participate," says Li
Fan, director of the World and China Institute in Beijing and an
advocate of grass-roots democracy in China. "These elections are
very bad. They're worse than the last elections."
China's leaders have praised the open election of village chiefs
and local assemblies as important exercises in democracy. But last
month premier Wen Jiaobao told European journalists that China
wasn't ready to expand the practice. "The conditions are not yet
ripe for conducting direct election at a higher level of government.
Democracy, and direct election in particular, should develop in an
Elections are being held this year in almost 40,000 rural and
urban districts for the local People's Congress, the lowest rung on
China's lawmaking ladder. The local congress is responsible for
selecting delegates to a provincial assembly, which in turn sends
delegates to the National People's Congress, the supreme legislature
that meets annually. The staggered voting began July 1 and runs
through Dec. 31.
China's local congresses are tasked with overseeing local
government, including the appointment of mayors, prosecutors, and
judges, and also scrutinizing budgets. Most are rubber-stamp
assemblies that meet only a few times a year, but some have become
more muscular in recent years, prodded by social activists and
Xu Zhiyong, a young law professor, was elected to a district
congress in Beijing in 2003. Together with a caucus of other
independent delegates, he encouraged the assembly to scrutinize
policies toward migrant workers, request line budgets, and raise
questions about local officials linked to corruption. But the
congress remains stacked with party members that are reluctant to
challenge the status quo.
"If we can get more independent candidates, then things will
change. We can vote for the head of the district, we can do many
things. Right now, we're too small," he says.
In 2004, China changed the election law to give independents more
leeway to stand as candidates in township and district councils. In
theory, the nomination process is open to any citizen who has the
backing of 10 or more registered voters. Candidates are allowed to
"introduce themselves" to the public, while some congressional terms
were cut to three years, down from five years. …