The international and Chinese web have been abuzz with news of the decision of the controversial author Li Chengpeng to stand as an independent candidate to become a deputy to the People's Congress of Wuhou district in Chengdu, following a wave of interest in local elections. The provocative move is a step up for the outspoken social critic. His campaign is a challenge to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, with a slogan that calls democracy to mind: ‘Without your authorization, I can't represent you.’
The move is not technically illegal. As David Bandurski at the China Media Project explained, the Chinese Constitution includes a guarantee that ‘All citizens of the People’s Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election.’ However, ‘In practice, people’s congress representatives at the local level are often appointed by Party leaders, and they have little real power to influence local political decisions. Elections are supervised by higher government authorities, so there is ample opportunity for manipulation of the results.’It provoked a response from the official Xinhua news agency, which declared that ‘There is no such thing as an “independent candidate” as it’s not recognized by law.’
Nobody writing in English seems to have gotten hold of Li yet, but we interviewed him for a profile in the Christian Science Monitor back in April. We’re trying to get him for another talk about what he’s doing now in the next few days, but in the meantime here’s a quick take on who he is and our sense of what he's doing.
A native of the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, and former journalist, Li, nicknamed ‘Li Big Eyes,’ is a gutsy and provocative writer and used to conspicuously challenging authority, a theme that’s run through his career. When we spoke to him, he had just published a controversial and best-selling novel, Li Kele Protests Demolitions, about the touchy issue of forced demolitions. ‘I'm not scared,’ he told us, ‘There are some things you have to face as a man.’
He first came to prominence – and first aroused the suspicions of the Chinese authorities – as a sports journalist covering soccer. A series of articles culminating in a 2005 book exposing the corrupt inner workings of the Chinese football world aroused anger and, he says, personal threats to his family. By 2009, he told us, he regularly received anonymous text messages saying things like ‘You'd better watch your family,’ and at one point was so scared of the police that he spent several weeks checking into a new hotel room every night using names and ID cards borrowed from friends.
Li became a celebrity blogger in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which he witnessed first-hand in Chengdu. Millions of people read his story about a group of elementary school teachers guiding their class across the mountains from a ruined school to safety. In it, he criticized local officials and construction companies for using shoddy materials in schools, an issue that became a major scandal in China. As his profile rose, the controversial nature of his exposes made it difficult to hold a single job for long. Eventually, he left journalism entirely and moved back to Chengdu, saying that it was easier to tell the truth in fiction.
‘There are two types of writer in China,’ Li said. ‘One is like the journalists at the People's Daily, and one is like me. At People’s Daily, every disaster is a fairy tale with a happy ending.’
The novel that we spoke to him about had a similarly difficult road to publication. The novel was turned down by every publisher his agents took it to in Beijing, and ultimately got into print through a tiny publishing house in the remote province of Gansu, still enduring what he described as a lengthy process of censorship and negotiation over the book’s content.
The novel was readable and funny, but it had a caustic tone that criticized many aspects of Chinese life, from corrupt local officials to mercenary women. It told the story of a community whose dispute with local authorities and construction companies escalated into a siege, dramatically narrating pitched battles between local people and the authorities who planned to demolish their houses.
When we spoke to him, he was eager to present himself as defiant toward the party-state’s authority. He asked to speak with us on a landline, saying that he feared his mobile phone was being tapped, and said that critics of his novel were in the pay of the government. ‘If authors in the pay of the government are criticizing you, you must be speaking for the people,’ he said.
Li’s suspicion of the Chinese state seems to run deep into his life. He told us that he plans to home-school his 9-year-old son after he finishes primary school, because he doesn't want him to get in the habit of telling lies. In school, he said, ‘they give you 12 years of lies and 12 years of nonsense.’
Although we called to talk him about his novel, he immediately steered the interview towards his ideas about the state of China. Again and again, he told us that Chinese people lack a sense of security about their lives (‘mei you anquangan’).
‘Chinese people don't feel safe,’ he said. ‘They've been panic-buying salt, because they don’t feel safe. They don’t feel safe, because they think somebody might tear down their house in the middle of their night, because they think the outside world is full of enemies, because that's what we’re told in school.’
Li is a liberal and a populist, but he's not Ai Weiwei – Li spoke almost no English, and was clearly unused to speaking to foreign journalists, although he makes frequent appearances on Chinese TV. Neither is he the type of nationalist angry youth whom foreign analysts associate with the Chinese internet. When we spoke to him shortly after Japan’s disastrous Fukushima earthquake, Li had a prepared speech ready about the importance of mutual understanding and ‘love’ between China and Japan, telling us that he was the first prominent figure in China to express support for Japan in the wake of the catastrophe.
So what does this mean for China? Li's election campaign is a genuinely Chinese event, attracting attention and support on the Chinese internet and, as USA Today reported, an endorsement from Han Han, a superstar author and blogger.
For now, Li’s activities remain easily searchable on the Chinese internet. Li's article on Baidu Zhidao (Chinese), China's largest equivalent of Wikipedia, has a section on his election – and, in fact, was our source for the image at the top of this post. And the conservative Global Times ran a story today that said that Xinhua’s ‘no independent candidates’ story ‘didn't close the door’ to people like Li Chengpeng from joining the election.
Ultimately, the gravity of the situation depends very on how the Communist Party decides to interpret it: as a low-level challenge which can be addressed with minor resistance and bureaucratic foot-dragging, or a frontal assault that needs to be stamped out.
Peter Martin works for a political consulting firm in Beijing. David Cohen is a freelance journalist. They blog at www.sinocentric.net and their writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian Online, the Global Times, the China Daily and the Lowy Interpreter among other publications.