January 11, 2017 2:00 pm JST
Xi's Supremacy

Chinese-style democracy keeps dissidents off ballots

Communist Party weeds out unsuitable candidates, sometimes by detention

OKI NAGAI, Nikkei staff writer

Li Yongkun, center, hands out campaign fliers Nov. 8.

BEIJING -- The market in a farming village in southern Beijing was bustling as usual on the morning of Nov. 8 with residents buying bread and apples for breakfast. But the day took an unusual turn when one man, wearing a red sash and holding a pile of fliers, began calling for people's attention.

"If I win, I will protect your 'right to know' and your right to land," the man told passersby. His sash asked for their vote, while the leaflets promised that he would listen to the public if he won the election. Most were skeptical and stayed away. A few took a flier.

Li Yongkun was running for a seat in the local assembly of Xiaohongmen, a township in Beijing's Chaoyang District. Townships are among the smallest political units in China. Though the country is under the Communist Party's rule, elections are held every five years to fill legislative seats.

Lawmakers in the National People's Congress and provincial assemblies are chosen indirectly. But smaller cities, as well as the districts and townships that fall under them, hold direct elections. Technically, anyone 18 or older who is endorsed by at least 10 locals may run. But most do so only with a nomination from the Communist Party, and independent candidates like Li often encounter problems with the authorities.

Not on our watch

About 20 minutes after Li began handing out fliers, around a dozen police officers and local officials showed up to stop him. Li and his family insisted he was exercising his rights, but police surrounded him amid the commotion and removed him from the scene. He was watched for the next three days.

When Li went to the polls Nov. 15, he was stunned to see that his name was not on the ballot. Local authorities apparently had "adjusted" the list of candidates. An official repeatedly declined comment on the incident. Only those who ran with the Communist Party's blessing won seats in the election.

Li has clashed with the local government for several years over how it carried out evictions and the amount of compensation paid. It is alleged that he also received a beating from police. Li ran for office with hopes of defending the public's right to information and to land. Though his dreams were thwarted, several told him that he was right, and that he represented everybody's interests.

Asked whether he would run in the next election in five years, he simply answered: "If I have the energy."

Campaign interference

On Oct. 21, several police officers stormed the home of democratic activist He Depu in Beijing and forced him into a car. The activist and his friends intended to run in the city's district elections, and applications could be made in three days.

He was taken to a Beijing airport and flown to the city of Xining in Qinghai Province. From there, He was brought to Inner Mongolia by train. The police allegedly told the activist that he needed to be away from Beijing for nine days but gave no reason. He was granted some freedoms, like riding horses on the plains, but was watched constantly. By the time He returned to Beijing, entry into the elections was closed.

Women's rights activist Ye Jinghuan was among a group of 18 people who also planned to run for seats in Beijing's district races. But she was placed under police surveillance and could not leave home. Police broke up stump speeches by others in her group. The elections are far from democratic, Ye said.

Beijing city officials opened a polling station to foreign media Nov. 15, where locals were marking off their top three picks out of four names on the ballot. A sign bearing each candidate's face and history stood outside. "The winners are being chosen democratically," the official responsible for the station said proudly. But candidates considered unsuitable had been eliminated before voting even began.

State broadcaster CCTV that night aired a clip of Chinese President Xi Jinping and six other national leaders casting their vote. The segment seemed to stress that both political heavyweights and regular citizens have the same one vote. But China's top leaders are chosen in a smoke-filled room by a handful of Communist Party heavyweights, and the public simply learns of the results when the new officers appear on TV following the party congress held every five years.

At one university in Shanghai, some voters Nov. 15 apparently wrote in U.S. President-elect Donald Trump or the name of a well-known Japanese porn star. Trump accounted for 10% of the vote. Students perhaps saw this as the only way to protest the nature of the election.

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