“Vote as I say”

The Economist has an article about the grassroots elections. Nothing terribly new, but a bit of historical context:

Elections at the lowest tier of China’s multi-layered parliamentary structure are the only ones in which citizens can directly vote for their legislators. But the party likes to leave nothing to chance. Citizens can, in theory, stand for election with support from ten fellow constituents. In practice, the party usually ensures that only its endorsed candidates make it to the shortlist. Ordinary Chinese often refer to the “people’s congresses”, as the legislatures are called, as mere ornamental “flower vases”.

So a flurry of internet-fuelled enthusiasm for such polls has attracted considerable attention, including in some state-owned media (to the disquiet of propaganda officials, say Chinese journalists). Li Fan of the World and China Institute in Beijing, thinks that more than 100 people have declared themselves as candidates in recent weeks for elections for people’s congresses that are due to be held around the country in the coming months. They have mustered support using microblogging tools such as Sina Weibo, a hugely popular Twitter-like service.

Even a hint of spontaneity in legislative elections can make the party squirm. In 1980 the first experiment with such polls led to heated campaigns on campuses. Officials intervened to block outspoken candidates from winning seats. Six years later, attempts to exclude independent candidates from local elections prompted student protests. The crackdown on the Tiananmen Square unrest in 1989 all but ended activists’ efforts at the ballots until 2003, when a slightly more liberal atmosphere encouraged dozens from the newly emerging middle classes to run. But when elections were held three years later, the party stifled media coverage.

Now, despite a sweeping crackdown on dissent this year involving the arrest of dozens of activists, the party is finding it harder to impose silence. A surge in online social networking has enabled citizens to connect instantly with vast numbers of like-minded people. Intellectuals and journalists with high profiles online are among those who have declared their candidacies. Li Chengpeng, an author and social critic in Sichuan province, has more than 3m followers of his Sina Weibo account. In a message posted on June 15th Mr Li wrote that a policeman had said he would vote for him, with many fellow officers wanting to follow suit.

So will they start getting more active in disqualifying candidates? Will they somehow intimidate voters on election day, or just get really creative when they start counting ballots? Or will they actually allow independent candidates into these low reaches of the government, understanding the trend that’ll start? We’ll have more as it happens.

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