CDB Editorial: the Public Interest and Politics

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This year, counties and townships across China will elect representatives for local People’s Congress. By the end of 2012, there will be approximately two million representatives at the county and township levels.

“Without your permission, I cannot represent you,” proclaims a poster promoting Li Chengpeng designed by his online supporters. The poster depicts Li staring off into the distance. Prior to this, he used his blog to announce that he would campaign to represent Chengdu’s Wuhou district.

Li is a writer and commentator on current events, and a leader of online opinion boards. He is known for his humor and sharp wit and has a history of exposing corruption and injustice. From feeling “simply powerless to speak out” to running for election, Li has made significant strides. He has carefully studied the Election Law and the Constitution and “is trying to practice his rights as a citizen.”

In fact, since this year, many others like Li have emerged around the country as independent candidates. According to the Election Law, individuals may run if they have the nomination of ten people. These individuals include writers, university professors, intellectuals and members of the media, as well as ordinary citizens and college students. They include a laid-off worker in Jiangxi named Li Ping, Guangzhou’s Liang Shuxin who is the director of business operation for Tianya online community and organizer of micro-philanthropy activities (微公益) , columnist and writer Wuyue Sanren, author Xia Shang, Associate Professor Wu Danhong of China University of Political Science and Law, and Xiong Wei of the Beijing New Enlightenment Research Center on Citizen Participation in Legislation (北京新启蒙公民参与立法研究中心). What these individuals share in common is a non-governmental background. Compared to more conventional candidates, these independent candidates may be a dime a dozen but they are more impressive ((Editor’s Note: These “independent” candidates in other words are from outside the state-supported system, unlike conventional candidates that come from and are supported by the system.)).

Interestingly, although Li makes grand statements on the blogs, his campaign promises are on “small” and “trivial” issues. His goals are to “help Wuhou district’s residents better communicate with the government, lower food prices, improve traffic congestion, and solve school bus issues.” Any candidate who attempts to represent the public and truly live up to his responsibilities will inevitably face deep-rooted and complex calculations. Whether this is a campaign tactic, Li’s goals seem pragmatic and low-key. Other independent candidates also have their own clear goals.

In June, in response to the emergence of independent candidates, the NPC’s Legal Committee responded that “official candidates running to represent townships and counties in the NPC must be legally nominated by a political party, people’s organizations, and voters. There can only be official candidates; the so-called ‘independent candidates’ have no legal basis.” This statement started widespread discussion on grassroot elections. The word “independent” is actually used to distinguish between the institutional affiliation of candidates and has a strong bottom-up (自下而上) connotation. According to an individual affiliated with an NGO, “If citizens want to be called ‘independent candidates’ they do not need a legal basis. Procedurally speaking, it’s difficult to distinguish these candidates from candidates supported by government officials.” In fact, many candidates with a government background were also nominated by ten individuals. He suggests using the more rigorous term of “jointly-nominated candidate” instead ((Editor’s Note: In other words, the term “independent candidate” is merely a descriptive term, not a legal one. It is used to describe a candidate who does not enjoy government support or affiliation, someone who emerged from the grassroots. The point here is that it is misleading to equate so-called “independent candidates” with candidates who are “jointly nominated” since many government-supported candidates are also “jointly-nominated”.)).

More important than labels is the fact that the outlook for independent candidates is not encouraging. The magazine Nanfeng Chuang (南风 窗) published an article titled “A Record of Ups and Downs for Independent Representatives Over the Last Ten Years.” The piece summarized the campaigns and tenures of successful candidates such as Wang Liang, Xu Zhiyong, Sima Nan, Yao Lifa, Nie Hailiang, Huang Songhai, etc. It discovered that “in an institutionally-constrained environment, most candidates struggled, many retreated early, and others announced defeat. Overall, the few candidates who succeeded in the elections had only a limited impact in promoting the construction of grassroots democracy.”

However, “democracy is a good thing.” While these pioneering individuals did not achieve success, their appearance brings hope. Democracy is a right, and it requires citizen initiative and participation to be lasting. Independent candidates are a reflection of the bottom-up energy in society. People hope that independent candidates can bring different voices and represent different interests in the NPC, change people’s impression that the NPC is just a rubber stamp, and foster confidence in the government.

Democracy is a simple concept but difficult to execute. It requires persistence and perseverance, and a successful and democratic election requires citizen awareness and a mature civil society.

Recently General Secretary Hu Jintao repeatedly mentioned the need for “improved and innovative management of society.” In managing society, the government has expressed new opinions and embarked on new initiatives. The issue of social management is about increasing public space and allowing more self-organization in society rather than using this opportunity to expand governmental power and increase controls over society. The reality is that civil society has been developing for a number of years and is in need of new methods of management from the government. Today, the government needs to assign a high value to civil society. An emphasis on the need for reform in the management of society reflects an end to the GDP fairytale because worshipping GDP will not bring about fairness and justice to society ((Editor’s Note: The idea of “social management” (shehui guanli) is a major theme in the government’s 12th Five Year Plan and reflects the leadership’s recognition that it needs to pay more attention to regulating an increasingly diverse, vocal and rights-conscious society and to resolving social tensions and conflicts. How it goes about managing society however is up for debate and discussion. The editorial here takes the position that social management should be about empowering NGOs, not repressing them.)).

Similar to the issue of independent candidates, civil society has dealt with various issues for many years. It strives for cooperation between citizens and the state and a new system for dealing with social disorder. In comparison to independent candidates’ participation in the NPC elections, the main purpose of NGOs is to unite the people’s cooperative spirit, accumulate social capital, and promote positive social construction by involving citizens in charity and public welfare and advocating for good governance. Recently, some NGOs have attempted to enter communities and act as independent third party mediators in conflicts. They have persisted in a difficult environment and deserve our attention. Through subtle exercises in democratic consultation, they have helped people understand the rights and obligations of citizens and respect the rules of democracy. In a broad sense, they employ different means – whether pushing for electoral democracy (选举式民主) or consultative democracy (协商式民主)– but the end is one and the same. With respect to the government, citizens participating in elections, along with the gradual growth of civil society, all support a system of checks and balances on power that will put us on the path toward social harmony ((Editor’s Note: In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has been experimenting with expanding “democracy” within a one-party system. One path has been electoral democracy which involves holding direct elections at the local level, and contested elections in party congresses whereby there are more candidates than seats. Another path has been consultative democracy which involves soliciting feedback from Communist Party members, the eight “friendship” parties, and selected constitutents on public policy.)).

In Brief

This year, counties and townships across China will elect representatives for local People’s Congress. By the end of 2012, there will be approximately two million representatives at the county and township levels.
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