Fourteen rights activists say they will seek candidacy in Beijing district elections

Independent candidacy exists on paper in China, but the authorities retaliate against anyone brave enough to stand.
By Qiao Long and Shum Yin Hang
Fourteen rights activists say they will seek candidacy in Beijing district elections Chinese police surround Li Wenzu, wife of human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, outside his trial in Beijing, Dec. 28, 2018. Li has applied to run in elections for the Beijing Municipal People's Congress in November.

More than a dozen rights activists in the Chinese capital have said they will apply to stand as candidates in elections for the Beijing Municipal People's Congress next month, after ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping vowed to improve citizen participation in elections that are still controlled by the ruling party.

Fourteen activists, many of whom campaigned on behalf of family members detained in a nationwide operation targeting human rights lawyers that began on July 9, 2015, said in an Oct. 15 declaration that they now want to put that experience to further use.

"We have spent several years fighting for people's rights since July 9, 2015, visiting government departments and agencies, the police, the courts, the prosecution," would-be election candidate Li Wenzu, who fought for years to find the whereabouts of her rights lawyer husband Wang Quanzhang, told RFA. 

"Yet we found that it was extremely difficult to get any resolution for our demands. On many occasions, we couldn't even find our local [People's Congress] representatives," Li said.

She said she and Wang Qiaoling, wife of rights lawyer Li Heping, also been targeted and harassed by the authorities in retaliation for their advocacy.

"We have been evicted, had our kids excluded from schools on four occasions, and have been denied passports when we went to apply for them," Li said. "When we tried to turn to our People's Congress representatives for help, they were nowhere to be found."

The declaration said the 14 would-be candidates "are now filled with a strong desire to become People's Congress representatives ourselves."

"We want communities and neighborhoods, and every single voter, to be able to find us at any time," it said. "We want to speak on behalf of ordinary people, to help them get things done: please vote for us!"

Many of those who signed have been contacted by police, or had their phone signals blocked by the authorities, Li said.

"Many of the 14 have gotten threatening calls from officers at the local police station or state security police," Li said.

"Liu Ermin [who wants to stand in Shijingshan district] ... and her husband [Zhai Yanmin] got a call from the state security police, while lawyer Li Heping also received a call saying that ... one of the [activists] associated with the July 9, 2015 crackdown is suspected of collusion with a foreign power," she said.

Xi told an Oct. 13 meeting of the People's Congress work conference in Beijing that more work was needed to "improve the People's Congress system ... [and] continuously develop people's democracy."

But while Xi has made much of China's own-brand of "whole process" democracy, drawing a distinction with Western democratic systems, state media have warned that there is "no such thing" as an independent candidate, with candidates all needing the prior approval of the CCP.

In a post to social media, Wang Qiaoling wrote: "In the six years [of my advocacy for the detained lawyers] I was forced to move house, my child was excluded from school, and our passport application was rejected."

"I wanted to ask my People’s Congress representatives to report the situation to the relevant departments, but they were nowhere to be found," wrote Wang, who will seek candidacy in the Shunyi District People's Congress election.

"So I have a strong desire to be a People's Congress representative that people can actually find."

But sources said many of the 14 have now had their phones blocked by the authorities.

Repeated calls to Wang Qiaoling, Liu Ermin and Shibalidian township hopeful Li Hairong rang unanswered on Monday.

Zhang Shangen, who wants to run in Beijing's Dongcheng district, said he has already been contacted by police.

"I have felt the pressure already," Zhang told RFA on Monday. "Police called me this morning to ask if my independent candidacy had been registered at the neighborhood committee, and I said not yet; whether I can register depends on recommendations [for my nomination] from voters."

"I will be canvassing for recommendations in our community on Sunday, Oct. 25."

Local elections will be held across the Beijing municipal area on Nov. 5 to return nearly five thousand district People's Congress representatives and more than 10,000 township People's Congress representatives.

But apart from a token group of "democratic parties" which never oppose or criticize the ruling Communist Party, opposition political parties are banned in China, and those who set them up are frequently handed lengthy jail terms.

Constitutional expert Yao Lifa once succeeded in being elected to the Qianjiang municipal People's Congress in 1998, where he used his platform to criticize government policy.

But after a 10-year struggle to get elected, he was shunted aside five years later and has been subjected to official retaliation ever since, including secret detention, torture and starvation, according to his wife.

Neighborhood committees in China have long been tasked with monitoring the activities of ordinary people in urban areas, and the implementation of a "grid management" system will turbo-charge the capacity of officials even in rural areas to monitor what local people are doing, saying, and thinking.

According to a recruitment advertisement posted online in 2018, the task of a grid monitor for a neighborhood committee is to fully understand the residents of their grid, including exactly who lives where, which organizations they belong to, and the sort of lives they lead.

They mediate in family conflicts and other disputes and carry out "psychological intervention" when required, as well as reporting back on "hidden dangers" in all aspects of residents' lives, political opinions, and complaints, the advertisement said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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