Democracy, Chinese Style: 2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back(2003)

Published: December 21, 2003

Election Day at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications brought unusually clear skies and, for voters, the unusual prospect of a real choice. Xu Zhiyong, a young teacher, had managed to get his name on the ballot for a local election, even without the blessing of the Communist Party.

As Mr. Xu walked through campus last week with his smiling girlfriend, hoping to win a seat in the low-level People's Congress that represents his section of Beijing, he was greeted by excited voters. ''We should take our democratic rights seriously,'' one man said. ''We're off to vote for you.''

Two days later, Mr. Xu learned he had won.

Yet in Central China, Election Day in Hubei Province had already offered a reminder of the hard limits of political change in China. Yao Lifa, a prominent reform advocate, was furiously writing official complaints after losing in late November. He said party officials had cheated him and other independents through gerrymandering, intimidation and foul play.

''The election was bogus and manipulated to prevent voters from exercising their votes,'' Mr. Yao said. ''All this makes me feel the country's Constitution and laws aren't being lived up to.''

The starkly different elections underscore the hopes and deep frustrations among those who support political change in one-party China. Even as leaders are embracing Western-style capitalism, political change is happening only in tiny steps. Efforts to force political change are often met with hostility.

''This process is not a smooth process,'' said Mao Yushi, an executive board member of a prominent economic and political research institute in Beijing. Mr. Mao believes that China is moving toward democracy, but he predicted that it would take two or three generations. ''It must be one step backward and two steps forward.''

Other recent elections have been similarly contradictory. In May, a school administrator in Shenzhen unexpectedly won a local election against three candidates sponsored by the Communist Party. Yet in September, a local official in the southwest was jailed after he tried to organize a direct election for a post usually controlled by party leaders.

In October, President Hu Jintao gave a long-awaited speech on political change, vaguely calling for more democracy and saying the Communist Party must ''ensure that the people can exercise democratic elections.'' His remarks were interpreted by some as an endorsement of some political change, if hardly full-blown democracy.

The elections in Beijing were for local assemblies, known as People's Congresses, in various urban and rural districts in the capital. State media heavily publicized the elections, and independent candidates -- the exact number is not known -- collected the 10 signatures required by law to be included in a primary.

Few made it onto the final ballots, however, as each district followed its own procedure to winnow the primary field.

''This nominating process needs reform,'' said Li Fan, an academic in Beijing who has promoted expanding direct elections and advised different independent candidates around the country. ''Many self-nominated candidates have complained.''

One independent, Shu Kexin, said vote tallies from his primary were not released. He said he could not determine how the finalists were decided, except that ''voting groups'' selected by local officials made the choice.

Even after he had been excluded from the election ballot, Mr. Shu campaigned in a van with a banner asking voters to choose him as a write-in candidate. He lost, but he said that simply running had represented a step forward.

''The problem in China is things aren't open enough,'' Mr. Shu said. ''I tell the people, 'You can watch me every day.' I promised to give out my phone number and establish an office.''

Mr. Xu, 30, the teacher, was running in the Haidian district of Beijing, for a seat representing the university where he lectured in law. He said nearly 300 candidates, many of them self-nominated, ran in an open primary in late November, and the top vote-getters advanced to the election. Students, attracted by his idealism, campaigned for him, while Mr. Xu posted information about himself on a Web site and spoke at campus events.

''In joining the election,'' Mr. Xu said, ''it's about advancing democracy and the rule of law in China.''

Mr. Xu, who has a doctorate in law, said he sought office as part of his larger commitment to expand democracy and the rule of law in China. Earlier this year, he helped defend Sun Dawu, the rural banker who had earned a reputation as a Robin Hood but was arrested on charges that he had run an illegal bank. Mr. Sun was eventually convicted but released.

Mr. Xu also helped overturn an unpopular law that allowed the police to detain people traveling without residence permits. After the police in Guangdong Province detained and beat a person to death, Mr. Xu and two other legal schools petitioned the nation's top legislature to review the constitutionality of the detention law, which was later abolished.

His victory gives him a modest position in one of the lower rungs of China's layered government, far below the National People's Congress. But he already has plans to push for improving laws governing forced relocations of apartment dwellers, which is a lively topic in big cities.

''I can feel the changes happening in China myself from the things I've been involved in over the past year,'' Mr. Xu said.

Farther south, in Hubei Province, though, Mr. Yao's experiences left him disillusioned rather than idealistic. He had spent more than a decade trying to win a seat to the local People's Congress in Qianjiang in Hubei before winning a surprise victory in 1998. He then began fighting the status quo, trying to overturn certain village elections and encouraging voters to pursue recalls.

Facing re-election, Mr. Yao helped organize a group of 31 other independent candidates, among them teachers, farmers, workers and even a few low-level village officials. In late summer, the group reviewed election laws and China's Constitution, including language stating, Mr. Yao said, ''that all power belongs to the citizens.''

The election brought Mr. Yao unwanted scrutiny, as he was so closely followed that he feared he would be arrested if he met with a foreign reporter. He agreed only to be interviewed by telephone.

He said his biggest obstacle was blatant gerrymandering and intimidation. He said independents were blocked from campaigning in some areas, while voting districts were altered to help official candidates. He said three delegates were chosen from one ward with 27,000 voters, while another ward of party employees had three delegates for only 520 voters.

''It was rampant and systematic,'' Mr. Yao said of the districting system. Li Congyun, a local election official, denied any irregularities. But a member of the local People's Congress, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Mr. Yao's account.

Mr. Yao believes that the flaws in the election will anger voters and create momentum for change. ''The election laws have been flouted, and People's Congresses aren't allowed to play the role they should,'' he said.

One person who admires Mr. Yao is Beijing's newest elected deputy, Mr. Xu. ''He was the first,'' Mr. Xu said. ''He's actively encouraged me and other candidates.''

Yet asked if he knew about the allegations of corruption in the Hubei elections, Mr. Xu conceded he did not. ''I only know that he lost,'' he said.