Xu Yan, 27, an active microblogger with some 10,000 followers, announced on his blog in May that he intended to be a candidate in district-level elections this fall, and has since come under heavy pressure, including having to quit his job. (Keith B. Richburg/THE WASHINGTON POST)

All across China, scores of ordinary citizens are challenging the Communist Party’s ironclad grip on political life, launching full-blown campaigns outside its grasp for local “people’s congresses.”

The local congresses — the lowest rung in China’s government structure, equivalent to neighborhood commissions — are relatively powerless bodies in the complex system that the party maintains as a formal display of grass-roots participation. Until now, they have been filled almost entirely with candidates from the party, or people endorsed by it.

But the unprecedented number of candidates stepping forward without the party’s backing for elections that begin this fall marks a potential watershed in China’s political evolution, testing the leadership’s professed commitment to allowing democracy to develop from the bottom up.

“Under the law, Chinese people have the right to stand in these elections and to vote, but in reality, China is far away from democracy,” said Zhang Kai, a Beijing lawyer and activist in an unauthorized Christian church who is running as an independent.

“Right now, China is experiencing a peaceful transformation,” Zhang said, explaining how this year’s many candidates, from many different backgrounds, demonstrates a growing political consciousness and a popular hunger for more say in how they are governed.

A few candidates who were not affiliated with the Communist Party have run in past elections for local congresses, but they received virtually no media coverage and few votes. This time around, however, the independent candidates — academics, students, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and farmers — are attracting widespread publicity and mounting serious campaigns, using social media and live Internet broadcasts.

The Communist Party seems to be grappling to find a coherent response. “Some are cheering from the sidelines,” said Elizabeth Economy, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. “There are certainly others who view this as very threatening.”

Social media power

The wide swath of candidates running, Economy said, “shows the breadth of interest in real reform.” But on the question of whether the party will allow the independents to prevail, or whether they could affect the system from inside if they did, she and other analysts sounded far more cautious.

The party has reacted harshly to some independent candidates. Some have been harassed by security officials and placed under house arrest. Others report receiving pressure to drop their candidacies. Xu Yan, a candidate in Hongzhou city, in Zhejiang province, said he quit his job after his employer was visited several times by tax authorities. Zhang Kai, the Beijing lawyer, said he has been stopped from traveling abroad.

The independents have a powerful new tool on their side: weibo, the hugely popular Twitter-like Chinese microblogging sites that have allowed candidates to announce their intentions, lay out their positions on issues in their neighborhoods and reach potential supporters. Many have their own Web sites, and Xu Yan has put out a new five-minute video each week, talking about his ideas on local issues, such as parking problems; he has produced 10 such videos, a seeming first in China.

There have even been the campaign trappings and rituals that would feel familiar in any Western democracy — like Xu Chunliu, an independent candidate in Beijing, who is passing out campaign T-shirts to supporters, another apparent first for a Chinese election.

“People don’t have any formal political institutions,” said Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute, a think tank that has prepared a guidebook for independent candidates. “These local people’s congresses are the people’s only channel to fight for their rights.”

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.