Han Ying had just dropped off her 9-year-old son at school and was almost home when she found an unfamiliar guard at the gate to her neighborhood, barking at her, “You can’t come in.”
The Beijing land-rights activist drove away, glancing with rising panic at her rearview mirror, where she could see a gray car on her tail. She pulled into the parking lot of a friend’s apartment compound and bolted up the stairs.
She had gotten as far as the next floor, she says, when one man grabbed her around the waist, the other by the wrists. She held on to a baluster of the staircase, but they pried her loose and tried to drag her into the car.
“You rotten bums,” Han, 37, screamed loudly enough that the men let go and drove away, but not before telling her: “We just wanted to talk to you. We’re from the election commission.”
What had Han done? She had filed as a candidate in elections in Beijing on Tuesday to choose the “people’s representatives,” the lowest level of political office in China.
At least on paper, the Chinese Constitution permits any adult citizen without a criminal record to run for the office of people’s representative. In practice, however, those without the blessing of the Communist Party say they are thwarted at every pass: harassed, detained, followed and threatened. If that fails, they say, they’re simply kicked off the ballots.
That hasn’t stopped this from being the feistiest campaign since the party first allowed elections for people’s representatives in the early 1980s. The race across the country is crowded with hundreds of independent candidates, including about 50 in Beijing, who are using microblogs and a growing sense of empowerment to challenge the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.
“This year, people have been particularly active and the number of people is at a historical high,” said Cheng Hai, a 59-year-old lawyer who was campaigning as an independent Saturday in northwestern Beijing.
Although a few independent candidates have won, they tend to refrain from criticizing the government openly and avoid campaigning, especially on the Internet. Activists, however, draw immediate scrutiny from a government that tends to not brook dissent.
“The independent candidates could destroy the current system by soliciting votes on the Internet,” the party-run Global Times newspaper warned in May as the campaign season was opening. “Instead of pushing forward political development, the deviation is likely to create political risks in society.”
The positions of people’s representatives are not terribly elite: 4,349 seats for district or county level representatives are up for grabs in Beijing alone, and nearly 2 million nationwide in elections staggered over the course of the year. None of them are picked for the National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber-stamp legislature. For the most part, the job involves mundane matters such as recycling and pooper-scooper rules for pets.
Notwithstanding the lowly jobs available, , bloggers and activists, writers and academics, factory workers and farmers, entrepreneurs and even a fashion model are queuing up for the posts.
Guo Huojia, a 60-year-old farmer from Foshan, in Guangdong province, is one of the few independents to win an election. Campaigning against land confiscations and home demolitions, he received a stunning 7,000 out of 9,000 votes in his district in a Sept. 28 vote.
He was arrested the following day. He remains under house arrest.
A Shanghai writer dropped his plans to run after being hit by a tax audit. A real estate mogul who wanted to run for mayor of Zhengzhou says he was so harassed by tax authorities that he went into hiding and left politics behind.
“What they hate about independent candidates is that they reveal the true nature of the system,” said Xue Mengchun, a businessman who has been advising Han Ying on her campaign. “It is all about ‘face.’ The Chinese government is trying to show the world they have democracy.”
There is almost no coverage of the elections in the Chinese media, and you would hardly know they are going on except for red propaganda banners strung around town reading, “People choose the people’s delegates. The people’s delegates work for the people.”
The reality is that candidates mostly have been either Communist Party members or people handpicked by the party. Li Sihua, a former schoolteacher from Jiangxi province, said that when he went to sign up as a candidate in May, officials of the local election committee refused to give him the form.
“ ‘Why are you peasants participating in elections?’” Li said the election officials demanded. “We have three slots for representatives and they have been settled already.”
When Li persisted, he said they accused him of “sabotaging the election.” Eventually, he said, they decided to whisk him out of town, taking him three times during critical stages of the election process to resort hotels.
“They said they would take me for some fun,” Li said. He said he was treated well, “except that I had no freedom.”
This year’s hot issue for many of the candidates is land confiscation.
Han Ying is typical of the new breed. A slim, cheerful stay-at-home mom in bluejeans, she became an activist in 2003 to fight real estate developers who were building million-dollar condominiums on what used to be farmland on the northwestern fringes of Beijing.
“The people who grew up here were being cheated out of their land,” Han said, sitting on a plastic stool in her home in a shantytown of concrete and corrugated steel along a dirt road that passes behind a sparkling new development called Wonderland Mansion.
“We tried to sue the government to prevent demolitions. We tried petitioning. Then I thought I would run for office as people’s representative,” she said. “Direct elections are popular this year, and I thought I’d have a chance to make a difference.”
Han filed her candidacy in early September, part of a group of 13 independent candidates to do so. All of the applications except for Han’s were eliminated on technicalities. She was allowed to remain. But when she printed fliers advertising her candidacy and invited people from the neighborhood to hear her speak, she was detained and held by police in a basement for 10 hours.
“They said, ‘It’s illegal to publicize your campaign,’” Han recalled. “‘You have to do it our way.’”
Han persisted for a few weeks, until the incident Oct. 12 when she was nearly abducted in the stairwell. She still isn’t sure what happened: Even though the men told her they were from the election commission, others said they were undercover police.
“I’m scared to think about what might have happened. I could have been kidnapped, beaten, tortured,” she said.
She stopped campaigning and hasn’t dared to go beyond her backyard since then, looking around nervously even as she greeted a reporter. She said she was told last week that her name would not be on the ballots Tuesday because three other candidates from her neighborhood had more support from voters.
“Nobody knows who they are,” Han said.
Her 65-year-old mother, Han Shulan, sitting in on the interview, said she was proud of her daughter. “She is very brave to fight for the people this way,” she said. “Even if she were shot, I’d be proud of her.”
But Han is not so sure. “After what I’ve experienced, I don’t think I’ll run,” she said. “I’ve seen the dark side of the Chinese government.”