BEIJING — All around Liu Huizhen’s makeshift house, clusters of men lurked and smoked on a recent day, suspiciously eyeing passersby. Dozens of uniformed police waited in reserve, ready in case of trouble, while a thuggish man stood in the middle of the road with arms defiantly folded, preventing cars from passing.
Liu, a 45-year-old farmer’s wife, appears to have the Communist Party worried, here in the village of Gaodiansan on the outskirts of Beijing.
She wants to exercise her constitutional right to stand in local elections due to be held in the capital on Nov. 15, and about a dozen supporters had arrived to help her begin her campaign. They were to be blocked by a decisive show of force.
“Some people think I am a troublemaker,” she said. “They think this is the government’s decision and I won’t win in the end. But I am not afraid. I have the right to participate in this election. I didn’t do anything illegal.”
Between August and December, China is holding staggered local elections across the country — an exercise in “grass-roots democracy” on a daunting scale. The Communist Party says “all power in China belongs to the people,” and this is the people’s every-five-year chance to express their wishes through the ballot box.
Yet reading China’s closely controlled state media, you would barely know the elections were happening, with news confined to brief announcements of voting days in different counties and assurances that officials are ready. It is as far removed as one can imagine from the hoopla of the U.S. presidential race.
“Voters aren’t enthusiastic, and it would be useless for state media to publicize it,” said Fang Ning, an expert on political reforms at the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
About 2.5 million seats are up for grabs at the district, county and village levels for seats in local “People’s Congresses.” Almost all the candidates will be Communist Party members, but a few people have put forward their names to stand as independents.
Anyone without a criminal record is theoretically allowed to stand at the local level. In practice, independent candidates face police harassment and intimidation. Most will simply be blocked from running.
The Communist Party says the People’s Congress system stands at the heart of the “people’s democratic dictatorship.” Liu and hundreds of other people are experiencing the hard way what that really means.
On this day, she was kept under house arrest for most of the morning, allowed out briefly to meet her friends before being sent home again. The previous day, she slipped away from the two men who have been tailing her to meet reporters from The Washington Post.
The roots of her candidacy, she explained, lay in the bulldozing of her house in 2014 to make way for a commercial real estate development, and the eight months she subsequently spent in jail for protesting.
“I suffered a lot when I was protesting because I did not understand the law,” she said. “But now I learned some basic laws, and I want to help other people not to make the same mistakes I made.”
Liu is one of 58 independent candidates in Beijing who have joined together to declare their intentions publicly. Most are what are known in China as “petitioners,” people who have suffered injustice at the hands of the state and spend much of their lives seeking redress.
“When there are problems, you can’t find your local representative — they keep their office address and phone number secret,” said organizer Ye Jinghuan, 64. “So we want to become representatives ourselves. We want to do good things for citizens. For example, we want to solve traffic problems in Beijing.”
They want to join the lowest, most local People’s Congress. But even at this level of representation, the party clearly senses a threat: Interviews with a half-dozen candidates revealed that none had been allowed to organize meetings or to campaign.
Many had been barred even from collecting their nomination papers, and very few, if any, expect to meet the official selection committee’s approval to get their names on the official list of candidates. Four were driven by police to the eastern city of Hangzhou so they could not file their papers. Another, a 72-year-old woman, said she was constantly followed by two men even while walking her dog. The vast majority of voters will not even have heard of them.
Li Fan, the founder of the World and China Institute, a private think tank, says more established and politically connected independent candidates can sometimes get party approval to run.
“Local government does not crack down on every independent candidate who has expressed interest,” he said. “But if you campaign with a high profile, with people voicing loud support for you online or on the street, then you cannot be elected, no matter what.”
The idea of inviting candidates from outside the party to participate in local elections sprang up in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the traumatic decade of violent mob rule unleashed by Mao Zedong. Chinese society had been ravaged, and there was a sense the country needed an injection of democracy, Hu Ping, who won a seat in 1980 as a graduate student at Peking University but now lives in New York, told the China Change website.
But the idea of democracy was beguiling, and it spread far and wide during the 1980s — only to be violently crushed in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
There were small glimmers of democratic life in the early 2000s: A young university lecturer named Xu Zhiyong was elected in 2001 and 2006 in Beijing’s Haidian district, for example. In 2011, hundreds of independent candidates emerged from all walks of life, many using the exciting new tool of social media to advertise themselves.
Yet the glimmers were soon extinguished. Xu and most of the Internet-savvy candidates were simply banned from running in 2011. Three years later, Xu was sentenced to four years in jail for starting the grass-roots New Citizens Movement.
In the northeastern city of Tianjin, factory worker Wang Zhongxiang has been trying to get on the ballot for a decade. But his social-media accounts were closed down by the authorities when he started to campaign in 2011. This year he was barred even from collecting his nomination papers and detained for trying to leave his house.
“They are waiting for me downstairs,” he said by telephone, “and I can’t go outside.”
Wang’s aging parents are worried about him, but he insists they should be proud: He is, he claims, the only independent candidate in a city of 15 million people.
Xin Jin and Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.