(2002-03-08)Far From Beijing, a Semblance of Democracy

Published: March 8, 2002

Yao Lifa looks like a man with a mission, as he hurtles down the slick sidewalk, head bent against the rain, briefcase bulging with proposals he has brought to present to higher authorities in this provincial capital.

The intensity is understandable. Mr. Yao, 45, spent more than a decade campaigning to acquire the modest political position he now holds, as a delegate to the local People's Congress in Qianjiang, a small city here in Hubei Province.

In 1998, Mr. Yao threw his hat into the ring in an election where most other candidates were Communist Party members and all had official government backing. Schools refused to let him speak and factories threatened workers with dismissal if they gave him their votes.

Undeterred, he pressed the flesh, wrote more than a dozen position papers and pushed thousands of his pamphlets under doors -- eventually muscling China's generally closed political system to act like a democracy, if only for a moment. Drawn by his promises of clean government and more of a voice for ordinary people, voters defied local officials to give Mr. Yao 1,706 out of 3,100 possible votes.

''I wanted it so bad, I didn't sleep for 50 hours and finally collapsed just before the vote,'' he said, flashing a down-home politician's smile. ''Through my campaigning, I've felt democracy getting closer to the people, and that is a trend that can not be held back.''

As China now convenes its legislature, the National People's Congress, it is clear that the pyramid of local congresses that underlies the national body is changing, becoming more responsive to popular sentiment, if still far from democratic.

The congresses at provincial and local levels have become increasingly activist since new laws expanded their powers a decade ago. Today, in many places, they are reinventing themselves as agents of change, or at least guardians of good government.

''Ten years ago, whatever the local government submitted to us we would approve,'' said Li Yujing, deputy secretary general of the standing committee of the powerful Guangdong People's Congress, which has led the change. ''Even if we saw great need for a certain type of legislation, all we did was wait.

''Now not only do we review laws, we've started to write laws on our own. We call in outside experts. We hold open hearings. We demand to see budgets.''

Such modest advances nonetheless represent a big change in China. While the People's Congresses have long been charged with government oversight, in practice they inevitably served as applause machines for the party-controlled government.

''The major function of the invigorated provincial People's Congresses -- and it is an important one -- is monitoring the provincial governments,'' wrote Roderick MacFarquhar of Harvard, an expert on Chinese politics. ''Politically it acts as a brake on the untrammeled power of the provincial government.''

The results are particularly obvious in Guangdong where, among other triumphs, the People's Congress recently forced the provincial government to reverse a rise in the price of drinking water and demanded the resignation of powerful officials in the environmental protection office for their failure to close polluting factories.

Last year the head of the congress's standing committee, Zhu Senlin, even took aim at China's controversial ''re-education through labor'' system, where citizens can be sentenced up to three years in prison without a trial. He complained that the forms used to jail people did not even have space for describing the evidence, let alone the legal basis for putting the defendants away.

In Shenyang, the largest city in the northeast, delegates refused last year for the first time to approve a major government report, rejecting one on the judiciary. In northeastern Heilongjiang Province, the People's Congress has insisted that all government bureaus open their books, including off-budget accounts.

These congresses bear only passing resemblance to their Western counterparts: each level feeds a small number of delegates and proposals up the chain of command. Often, they formally convene for just days or weeks each year, although more activist congresses have started conducting investigations and making proposals year round.

Only the most local delegates are selected by any sort of popular vote, and even there, elections are stacked to perpetuate the status quo.

There are only a handful of independent delegates, like Mr. Yao, who win positions by directly appealing to voters. Most are proposed by government organizations and, since there are only slightly more candidates than positions, the vast majority succeed.

In Qianjiang, Mr. Yao's hometown, 82 percent of the 318 delegates to the People's Congress are party members.

In Guangdong Province, where the vast majority of the 775 delegates are also party members, candidates can be nominated by the party, by other ''authorized social groups'' or by more than 10 members of county congresses. In general, delegates represent interest groups rather than places: in Guangdong, 36 percent represent workers, peasants and other laborers, 21 percent represent the interests of Communist Party cadres, 22 percent represent intellectuals, and so on.

Many of the representatives are also government officials or are retired from such posts.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Yao -- then a local education official -- decided to run in Qianjiang's first election for the local People's Congress in 1987 as a delegate representing teachers and students. A new law allowed anyone who could collect signatures from 10 voters to run as an ''unofficial candidate.''

His quest was ardently discouraged by his superiors. But the quick-minded and unconventional Mr. Yao is not one to balk at obstacles: when his family's ''rich peasant'' background had denied him a chance to attend high school during the Cultural Revolution, he not only protested in a letter to Chairman Mao but taught himself at home to gain a place at college.

''I entered the election out of a sense of social responsibility, but I knew it was risky,'' he said. ''If you win, one of the party's candidates loses.''

He lost that year, but caught the electioneering bug; he ran again, unsuccessfully, in 1990 and 1993, garnering more votes with each try. He hammered on the same themes: an end to corruption, the need for government to serve ordinary people and the need for teachers to receive fair and prompt pay. The education bureau replied with increasing harassment, not allocating him work or housing from 1993 onward.

But through the 1990's, many people in Qianjiang came to admire his ideas. Over that time, too, the average Chinese had become much more vocal about greivances and more aware of rights. And so by 1998, when Mr. Yao exhorted voters to ''give your ballots to those who work for the people's interests,'' many apparently felt bold enough to vote for him.

Since then Mr. Yao -- whose name is pronounced like the words meaning ''wanting legislation'' -- has been a thorn in the side of local government. He has sponsored campaigns to overturn village elections that did not adhere to the law and gone after rural officials who try to collect excessive taxes and fees. He angers colleagues by pointing out that many ''have not been elected by legal procedures, but have been put in place.'' He has encouraged dissatisfied voters to undertake recalls.

There are only a handful of legislators in China who have been so confrontational. One, Zeng Jianyu, in Lushan City in western Sichuan Province, was recently sentenced to a year in jail for his work on behalf of irate taxi drivers.

So far, Mr. Yao has avoided that kind of trouble, and local newspapers have even analyzed the ''Yao Lifa phenomenon.'' Some colleagues now quietly support him, he said, even if they are still afraid to speak out.

''I spend a lot of time in the villages undertaking investigations,'' Mr. Yao said. ''If I didn't go to them, there'd be a long line at my door.''