Dozens of ordinary citizens — college students, journalists, lawyers, professors, white-collar workers, farmers and even a fashion model — challenged the election system dominated by the ruling Communist Party, by campaigning on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
Independent candidates posted videos, election slogans, pictures of their activities, and their commentaries on their Weibo accounts. And in the real world, several independent candidates recruited volunteers, made T-shirts with slogans, visited residents, handed out leaflets, and even raised funds. Other than public speeches — still banned by China’s election law — it was remarkably like a U.S. election campaign.
It may have all left the impression that the independent candidates might begin to change the closed political system. But that impression would have been wrong.
Instead of a democratic transformation, almost all the independent candidates met their Waterloo. In Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the three most prominent cities in China, none of the independent candidates won a seat in the local “people’s congress.”
The local people’s congresses are the lowest level structure of China’s multi-tiered legislative body, and are considered relatively powerless. Still, they were seen as the only avenue for average citizens to become politically active.
The independent candidates faced an uphill battle from the beginning. The local election committees in some cases questioned the validity of the signatures required on nominating papers to run. The actual election maps were not drawn up until the last minute — and sometimes, a large state-owned enterprise with more than 1,000 employees (who would all likely vote for the Party-backed candidate) was mapped into a voting area overnight.
In Zhejiang province, Xu Ruiyan, the area’s most high profile independent candidate, was forced to quit his advertising company job in August when his boss came under pressure, and then had to withdraw from the election in mid-October. In Guangzhou, a dozen independent candidates, mainly college students and activists, all failed in the election in early September — some for technical reasons, like not collecting enough signatures on their nominating papers.
On the Internet, the speeches of the independent candidates were censored. One Beijing candidate, Qiao Mu, found his accounts on Weibo and Renren — the Chinese version of Facebook — were banned a few days before the voting day. “I was pretty confident entering the final list at first,” he said. “I can’t accept this result.”
Several days before the voting day, the supporters of Zhang Yaozhou, one independent candidate, found they could no longer log in to Zhang’s personal Web site, unless they had access to a VPN.
The situation was the same across the country. In the just-completed election in Shanghai, on Nov. 16, all the independent candidates lost.
Activists, candidates and other analysts said the fall of all independent candidates this time around shows the dream of a more democratic China may have to wait a little bit longer. “The result is a setback,” said Xiong Wei, an election observer. “The cracking down will make people more resentful toward the government. The independent candidates are reformers, instead of revolutionaries. But the authority is pushing them to the other side, which is unwise.”
Some remained undeterred. “At least I learned about the whole process of elections this time,” said Xu Chunliu, a defeated independent candidate in Beijing after the result was announced. “And I want to stand in the election again next time, in five years.”