BEIJING (AP) — Increasing numbers of Chinese are seeking to run as independent candidates in upcoming local elections, but face daunting obstacles as the ruling Communist Party tries to tamp down any threat to its monopoly on power.
More Chinese independents then ever are believed to be running for local legislative councils, numbering in the hundreds by one estimate. There's Cao Tian, a property developer, who's shooting for the mayorship of the massive central metropolis of Zhengzhou, and Liu Ping, a civil rights activist seeking a district seat in the Jiangxi province city of Xinyu.
The surge in the number of independent candidates represents a desire for peaceful transition away from authoritarianism and toward greater government accountability, said Edward Friedman, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
That could put the candidates on a collision course with the party, whose core interest is to "prevent anything from ending the authoritarian power system," he said.
While most candidates are staying away from politically charged issues like democracy, they say they want to exercise a right given to Chinese in the constitution but rarely allowed by the authoritarian government.
"It is the right of every Chinese citizen to take part in the election of the People's Congress, and it is the duty of every citizen to pay interest in the political affairs of his country," Xu Yan, a former ad man said in a telephone interview from his home in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
Chinese officials have long pointed to non-party-affiliated candidates, as well as those from the eight other government-approved political parties, as proof the country is a democracy. But unlike those candidates, the rising crop of independents have few ties to the establishment.
Party officials and police have responded predictably, threatening the candidates, their businesses and families or disqualifying them on technicalities. Cao, the property developer, has disappeared, reportedly under investigation by police for his business dealings, although no changes have been brought.
But the willingness of Chinese to run despite the odds emphasizes that as China grows more prosperous the pressure from society for political change is rising. The Internet, especially popular Twitter-like services, is giving independents a platform they never had before.
"It's an outcome of the growing contradictions between the people and government. It's a yearning for democracy, but also a yearning for improvements in quality of life," said Li Fan, who runs a private think-tank in Beijing that promotes political reform.
While the establishment has been silent on the phenomenon, the candidacies come against a background of vague calls from Premier Wen Jiabao for some degree of political reform to shore up the achievements of 30 years of economic liberalization.
In remarks to a meeting of the Swiss-based World Economic Forum on Wednesday, Wen said it was crucial that the party adhere to laws and the constitution and address issues of over-concentration and abuse of power.
"To achieve this, we must reform the leadership system of the party and the state," Wen said, without giving details.
Tens of thousands of seats are to be filled in the elections for People's Congresses across the country, with voting having begun over the summer and finishing in the middle of 2012. Terms to the congresses — whose members are overwhelmingly chosen from Party stalwarts — last for three years.
Technically, all citizens 18 years of age and over are allowed to run for election to congresses at the township and urban district level as long as they collect 10 or more endorsements. In most cases, party higher-ups have final approval on the candidate lists, screening out anyone deemed threatening.
Yet, meeting those requirements is no guarantee of appearing on the ballot given the propensity of party officials to throw up arbitrary hurdles or simply leave candidates off the ballot with no explanation.
Yu Nan, a candidate in the western city of Lanzhou, is suing the city People's Congress after his eligibility was revoked, even though he was listed on the ballot and met arbitrary rules to submit original identity documents from his 17 endorsees.
When rules can't be gamed, pressure and intimidation have appeared to successfully deter the independents.
"After the police found out I was running, they came for a talk," said Xie Runliang, a self-described poet, from the eastern city of Yixing. The 41-year-old declined to elaborate on the threats except to say: "I feared the impact on my life so I quit."
Xie, from Yixing, said the lack of clarity and comprehensiveness in the law had further induced him to drop his campaign.
While the intimidation has prompted some to drop their campaigns and shun the media, others aren't ready to buckle under.
For Hangzhou's Xu, one of the best known of the current crop of independents, running meant giving up his job following threats directed at both his family and his workplace in the city's Xiacheng district.
Undeterred, he continues to update his microblog with new messages and pledges to communicate directly with constituents and pursue their concerns no matter how mundane.
"I phone and email them and set a time, and then I go and visit them to talk to them face to face. I want them to know about me, and I want to know about their needs and demands too," Xu said.
In Xinyu, Liu Ping says she plans to sue the city People's Congress over what she called a "fake election." She said her lawyer has advised her against further comment to the media.