A slate of independent candidates for Beijing’s district-level People’s Congress have announced that they are suspending their grassroots campaign due to fears for their personal safety in the wake of police threats and intimidation. The announcement comes just two weeks after the 14 candidates—some of them relatives of civil rights lawyers detained in 2015’s “Black Friday” crackdown—published a manifesto promising constituents better access to and more accountability from their local elected representatives.
Initial attempts by the Chinese authorities to interfere with the grassroots campaign were merely annoying, or even amusing—for example, sending out brigades of street sweepers to inconvenience the candidates as they tried to campaign around their neighborhoods, as the videos below illustrate:
— 李文足（王全璋妻子） (@709liwenzu) October 21, 2021
— 王峭岭 (@709wangqiaoling) October 21, 2021
But this mild interference soon escalated into intense surveillance, late-night visits, detentions and serious threats, as reported by Cheng Yut Yiu for RFA:
[J]ust four days ahead of the poll, would-be candidates including Li Wenzu, Wang Qiaoling, and Ye Jinghuan issued a joint statement saying that all 14 are withdrawing, citing fears for their personal safety.
Since they went public about their candidacy, around 10 activists have been placed under round-the-clock police surveillance, while some have been summoned to their local police station for a “chat,” and others forced to leave town under police escort and wait out the election at a tourist resort, the statement said.
[…] “We have been a bit terrified by [the authorities’ response to] this election,” it added.
Others had been threatened with eviction by their local government, and many of the 14 were forced to call a halt to campaign activities, as police told them that to proceed would be “dangerous” at the current time. [Source]
A joint statement from the candidates detailed the harassment they had encountered, and laid out their reasons for withdrawing from the campaign:
Some of us were taken to the police station “for tea” with the police; some of us were prevented from leaving the neighborhoods in which we live; some of us were taken from our homes late at night by the police and “forcibly vacationed”; some of us had our homes threatened with demolition by the local government; and some of us had our freedom of movement restricted by the police.
[…] We also received warnings from police officers from the Sanjianfang, Shabalidian and Jingshan police substations.
The 14 of us have weathered the 1998 Xinguoda case [a futures scam involving Xinguoda Futures Brokerage that resulted in mass public protests], the 2011 forced demolitions case, and the July 9, 2015 “Black Friday” crackdown on civil rights lawyers; our experiences defending civil rights have brought us together. We have always defended our rights according to the law, and have been through countless litigation proceedings, yet none of our appeals have been resolved. That is why we began to seek out our People’s Congress representatives, in the hope that they might help communicate our concerns to the government and relevant parties, but our People’s Congress representatives were nowhere to be found. This is what inspired us to want to become People’s Congress representatives ourselves—so that our neighbors, community members and voters would be able to come to us at any time with their problems, knowing that we would always be willing to speak for, and work for, ordinary citizens.
Although this third attempt by a slate of independent candidates to run for election is different from the first attempt in 2011, which was violently suppressed by the police, and the second attempt in 2016, which was violently suppressed by mobs of people, never did we imagine that we would feel so terrified…
Given the current level of fear and pressure, for the sake of our personal liberty and physical safety, we 14 candidates announce that we are suspending our independent election campaign. [Chinese]
Fourteen activists #withdraw bid to run in People’s Congress district #elections
But just four days ahead of the poll, would-be candidates including #LiWenzu, #WangQiaoling, and #YeJinghuan issued a joint statement saying that all 14 are withdrawing,…https://t.co/YA67WkvTuj
— sinbad (@sinbad_W) November 2, 2021
— 阿波罗网唯一官方推号 (@aboluowang) November 1, 2021
Most observers agree that China’s periodic elections are only superficially democratic, but this does not deter some grassroots candidates from campaigning, either in earnest or simply to make a point. Writing for The New York Times, Javier C. Hernández described the massive scope of China’s local elections:
Every five years, the government encourages citizens over the age of 18 without a criminal record — about 900 million people this year — to choose representatives for local People’s Congresses, the lowest level of the Chinese Legislature. The elections are staggered, and by the end of the year, about 2.5 million such representatives will be selected across China.
But the elections are democratic in name only. The party picks its preferred candidates and leaves no room for an upset. Even after a candidate is elected, his or her powers are severely restricted, given the centralized nature of decision-making in China. The Legislature is widely considered to be a rubber stamp of Mr. Xi and the Communist Party.
In recent years, activists and scholars have urged the government to allow more competition in local elections to give people a way to voice their frustrations.
Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said having a genuine legislative process in which all qualified citizens were allowed to run for office was crucial to maintaining stability in China.
“Improving the People’s Congress system is a necessary step toward reform,” he said. “If this route is blocked, then it could prove hard to achieve social stability in the future.” [Source]
Past grassroots campaigns for local office have generally failed, with candidates being subjected to government and police harassment, surveillance, threats, disqualification over minor technicalities, detention, eviction or expulsion. China Digital Times has extensive past coverage of the official pushback against grassroots candidates in Chengdu, Beijing and other Chinese cities during elections in 2011 and 2016, as well as posts about Wukan’s failed democratic experiment and Hubei electoral rights campaigner Yao Lifa, whose persistent independent campaigns finally won him a local election in 1998, but earned him the lasting enmity of the Chinese police and public security forces. China Change also features an excellent essay by civil rights attorney Teng Biao, detailing some independent candidates and their campaigns for the People’s Congress.
A recent tweet from Bao Tong, former political secretary to the late CCP Secretary-General Zhao Ziyang, lamented the end of this latest grassroots campaign effort and articulated the frustration that many Chinese progressives share:
“First, [a group of] citizens announce their candidacy; then the authorities restrict their campaign activities and warn voters not to have any contact with the candidates; finally, the candidates are forced to announce that they are suspending their campaign—this, then, is the process, the whole process of democracy in China.” [Chinese]