China voted yesterday, in a national round of elections to village councils and local branches of the People’s Congress. The Communist Party won.
But this wasn’t before a quiet and effective crackdown in which the Party demonstrated its efficiency at maintaining harmony, managing to clear the ballots of activists and gadfly candidates without drawing attention either to this, or even to the election process itself.
These elections were much anticipated back in July, as a fad spread online encouraging citizens to register themselves as candidates for local elections. The Chinese constitution formally guarantees the right of any citizen over the age of 18 to run for local office if they have no criminal record and can find 10 other people willing to nominate him. In theory, these local councils select representatives to regional bodies, which in turn select delegates to the National People’s Congress. Foreign journalists saw a movement, and China watchers – myself included – filed stories with echoes of the Arab Spring about the potential of social media to empower would-be local candidates.
But the campaigns ended with a whimper as Xinhua (Chinese link, but check out the pictures) described members of the Politburo Standing Committee casting their ballots in the Zhongnanhai polling station – a private polling place in the walled compound where China's top leaders reside – “before a dazzling, red Chinese flag, placing their votes in a ballot box inlayed with the emblem of the People's Republic of China, in a mood at once somber and festive.” I recommend following the link above just for the contrast between the pictures of Hu Jintao filling out his ballot alone at a giant green baize table and the more populist images democratic politicians try to project. I'll translate a longer section below, to convey the strange flavor of Chinese high official propaganda.
The independent candidates, by and large, didn’t go away on their own, but were, as China Human Rights Defenders has catalogued in Beijing and Guizhou, intimidated and directly prevented from campaigning. Some were taken on day trips to other cities by the police to get them out of the way during the official nominations and election day, while others were kept off the ballots on the grounds that they had fallen short of the ten nominators required. In CHRD’s sample, a few candidates were detained and briefly put under house arrest. Meanwhile, I’ve been unable to find out what happened to the outspoken novelist Li Chengpeng’s campaign for office in Chengdu – all mention of it has been excised from his own blog (Chinese), most likely by its web hosts at Sina.com.
Hu ended his visit to the polling station with a speech, proclaiming himself honored to take part in “the basis of our political system.” It’s fitting that neither he nor the lengthy Xinhua article noted the name of the person he voted for.
Following is a translation of Xinhua’s account of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the polling place. It is excerpted from a longer story that includes the entire Politburo Standing Committee:
“At the Zhongnanhai polling station in Huairen Hall, under a dazzling Chinese flag, a solemn but festive air hung over the red polling booth in the center of the hall, inlaid with the emblem of the Chinese nation.
“At approximately nine in the morning, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary, President, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Hu Jintao arrived at Huairen Hall polling station. Hu graciously shook hands with the worker at the polling place, listened carefully to the voting instructions, and then produced his voter registration certificate, handing it to the worker to verify before taking his ballot. He conscientiously filled out his ballot, and then walked to the ballot box, where he solemnly cast his vote.
“After voting, Hu took interviews with journalists. He said he was proud to be a voter in Beijing’s Xicheng district, and to take part in the balloting for the local People’s Congress. He said that the system of representation through the National People’s Congress was the basis of China’s political system, that executing the elections to local People’s Congresses, persisting in and perfecting the system of the National People’s Congress and guaranteeing that the people are masters of their nation, has a profound significance for the nation. Hu said he hoped that the comrade chosen in the election would remember the great trust placed in him by the voters, keep a close connection to the masses, vigorously reflect public opinion, carry out his duties according to the law, and exemplify the behavior of a member of the People’s Congress."