In early January, local delegates gathered for an annual meeting in this rust-belt city with expectations that, as usual, they would rubber-stamp the candidates chosen by the Communist Party to run the provincial legislature and the government.
The result was far different. Only one of five officially sanctioned candidates won election to the leadership of Fushun's legislature. Upstart candidates nominated directly from the floor captured the four other slots. Even more surprising, delegates rejected one candidate for a top provincial post, leaving an embarrassing vacancy in senior government ranks.
Such acts of legislative defiance, unheard of in more than 50 years of Communist rule, have been repeated in several provinces this year. With the opening Wednesday of the National People's Congress, China's lawmaking assembly, this has sparked concern that challenges to Communist Party control of local legislatures might spread.
Party leaders in Beijing are so worried about the threat of creeping democracy that they have conducted a series of meetings to ensure that the 2,984 delegates to this year's Congress stick to tightly scripted voting requirements, government sources said.
It is particularly important this year because during the two-week session, the National People's Congress will elect a new president to replace Jiang Zemin. The new party general secretary, Hu Jintao, is the designee. The Congress will also choose a prime minister -- expected to be Wen Jiabao -- to replace Zhu Rongji, and a new cabinet. Li Zhaoxing, a former ambassador to the United States, is tabbed to become foreign minister. Any divergence from official nominees -- even a low-ranking ministerial candidate -- would be a devastating setback for the party, which maintains a monopoly on political power.
Here in Fushun, the Communist Party leadership did not acknowledge defeat. The local state-run newspaper, in fact, declared that the legislative session had closed victoriously. But in a break of protocol, the newspaper placed a picture of the skeletal new provincial leadership not on the front page of its Jan. 13 edition, but in the back, a sign that the party had been humiliated.
It is significant that the cases of political defiance are taking place in neither the richest nor the poorest parts of the country, but in China's industrial heartland. In the wealthiest parts of the country -- along the coast in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou -- legislators are intimidated and tightly controlled by their party organization committees. These functionaries are also among the greatest beneficiaries of China's dynamic economic growth and have less interest in systemic changes.
At the same time, in China's poorest regions, delegates fear losing their jobs if they defy the party, a move that could land them back on the farm, dirt poor like their neighbors. So it is in middling parts of the country -- Hunan, in China's central plains; Liaoning, in the Manchurian industrial zone; and Hebei and Sichuan, China's two most populous provinces -- that change, however small, is being noticed.
Fushun, located in Liaoning, is a mining and steel city, once the pride of China's working class and famed for its favorite son, Lei Feng. Lei, who died here in 1963, has since been hailed as the model Communist worker and soldier in a political campaign, Study Lei Feng!, that continues today. These days, Fushun is a decayed shell. Government officials estimate that more than a third of the city's workforce of 800,000 is unemployed. State-owned factories have not hired new employees since 1996.
"The only thing left in Fushun are complaints and anger," said a member of the local legislature. "We had to do something."
The voting process in China is indirect. Citizens vote for their local representatives, who then choose delegates for the next level, such as cities. This tiered process continues up through provincial congresses and, finally, the National People's Congress. Under Chinese law, people's congresses also elect the government officials at each level -- township heads, mayors, provincial governors, prime minister, the president and all their deputies.
Candidates come from either Communist Party nomination committees or among the legislators themselves. Traditionally, however, only candidates designated by the party mattered. Delegates dared not nominate anyone or vote anyone down. When a law was passed mandating more than one nominee for each post, the party would choose both candidates and designate the loser.
Recently across China, however, local legislatures are showing independence.
On Jan. 1, in Yueyang, a city of 5.3 million people in Hunan province, legislators voted to expel Mayor Luo Bisheng -- the first act of its kind since the 1949 revolution. Luo was the only candidate.
The mayor had angered local residents by placing a pedestrian walkway in the middle of town, resulting in constant traffic jams. They also blamed him for an ill-fated scheme to force farmers to grow watermelons that ended up going unsold.
Delegates were called back two days after the first ballot and were told to vote again. Once more, Mayor Luo stood unopposed. That move constituted a clear violation of Chinese law, which stipulates that defeated candidates should be replaced, said party officials in Beijing. Luo won anyway. "Maybe people had a change of heart," the mayor quipped.
Similar challenges took place in northern Liaoning province, where three county chiefs were rejected for reelection, and in a district in Liaoning's capital, Shenyang, where party designees also were booted out.
"Rejecting the choices of the party's organization committee should not be taken as a standard for democracy," warned Wen Shizhen, the Liaoning provincial party chief, in a speech following the voting challenges. "We must increase our control over these mistaken ideas so that elections are not misused," he said in the closed speech, a written copy of which was made available to The Washington Post.
Wen forbade party members -- who constitute from 60 percent to 80 percent of the legislature -- to break ranks in legislative voting and demanded they report dissidence to party leaders or risk punishment.
After Wen's speech, Wei Guoping, a provincial delegate who is not a member of the Communist Party, tested the waters. His idea was to nominate Feng Youwei, another provincial legislator, as a delegate to the National People's Congress. Feng, a 62-year-old official in a state-run mining institute, is one of China's best-known political personalities because, unlike most legislators, he spends a lot of his time working on behalf of his constituents. The state-run New China News Agency has even cautiously praised his concern for the people in his district.
Wei spent two days asking for the appropriate document so he could start the nomination process, sources in Shenyang said. But officials from Liaoning's legislature refused to give him the paperwork.
Hou Jianjun, a delegate from Fushun, said he believed the recent challenges to party nominations were healthy for the political system.
"Of course, the leaders aren't so happy about it," said Hou, a private businessman who runs a string of massage parlors. "But the common folk are delighted."