So far, Li said, more than 100 independents have announced their intentions through microblogs. But he expects many more will enter the races once the rules in each district are made public. Li said he encourages independents to maintain a low profile to avoid attracting too much government scrutiny.
Still, the number already announcing their plans, and their high level of online campaigning, “means more and more people are trying to enter the political system. Now the system is closed. It’s run by the party elite. If you don’t open it, people will try to break in.”
China’s law allows citizens to stand in their districts if they are nominated by a party or social group, or receive the signatures of 10 people in the district supporting their candidacy. But the law also says all candidates must be “confirmed” by the local election committee, which publishes the final list of candidates, sets rules for campaigning and even determines the shape of the districts. The local election committee in each district is controlled by the Communist Party.
For now, officials in some places seem to have interpreted the rules loosely, allowing the independents to continue to campaign on weibo, with Beijing among the most tolerant.
‘Someone has to go first’
The candidates don’t make a big deal of their distance from the party, and they offer a variety of reasons, despite the pressure and threats, for running.
Zhang, the lawyer, said, “People have to pay a price to promote social progress. Someone has to go first.” As a lawyer, he said his main concern, if elected, will be China’s legal system and supervising the judicial system in his neighborhood.
Xu Yan, 27, the candidate in Hongzhou, said he first became interested when he was 18 and voted in the local congress elections without knowing anything about the candidates. “I decided I would be a candidate, and people would know me,” Xu said in an interview at a bookshop he was using as a de facto headquarters.
After a long night’s consideration, Xu said he made his decision to run and posted it at 3 a.m. on May 26 on his weibo account, where his reputation for taking controversial stands — such as criticizing the government’s response to the recent high-speed train crash at Wenzhou — has helped him draw more than 10,000 followers.
In July, Xu’s company, a real estate advertising firm, came under investigation by various government agencies, including the tax bureau and the labor office. Xu quit his job but stayed in the race.
Most analysts were skeptical that the elections will mark a turning point in China’s gradual evolution to more democracy. They point to much-heralded village elections, which began in the late 1980s with great fanfare, but failed to move beyond that level.
The last round of local elections, in 2006-07, produced a handful of independent winners, but they have had no apparent impact on livening the debate or altering the system and have been rarely heard from since they won their seats.
But perhaps the biggest question: Can elections in a system totally controlled by one party can be considered free and fair?
“I have confidence it will be free and fair — that’s why I’m running,” Xu said. “I really hope I can go through this election smoothly, so people will have hope for China’s elections.”
Zhang said, “Free and fair is a relative concept. I hope this one will be freer than the previous one. And the next might be even freer.”
Washington Post researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.