Independents day

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Gilles Sabrie for TIME

Patriot games A state banner urges eternal love of China; Li Chengpeng is the country's most famous independent candidate

By noon on Oct. 13, Ye Jing-Chun's bouquet was wilting under the Beijing sun. The 55-year-old retired bureaucrat had been pacing the alley by the Chaoyang district police station, waiting for Wu Lihong, a fellow candidate in local elections, to be released from 15 days' detention. But Wu wasn't freed and as the hours crept by, Ye's lilies and roses continued to droop. Plainclothes thugs with thick necks, military-style buzz cuts and video cameras patrolled the alley. A pair of Foreign Affairs police officers arrived to investigate the international journalists gathered on the scene. Still no Wu. The next day, her brother finally got a call from her saying she had been forced to fly to southwestern China with government minders. Chinese politics had claimed another victim.

Every five years in China, direct elections are held for 2 million representatives to local people's congresses, the lowest and a largely powerless rung of government. For decades, these polls have tended to be stage-managed affairs with state-approved candidates. But with frustration over official ineptitude boiling over, and with digital communications and social media making it easier to exchange and pool ideas, the elections are now drawing large numbers of independent candidates. There are thousands — perhaps even tens of thousands — of such candidates trying to run in elections that began this spring and continue through next year. Each of them is counting on laws that make nearly anyone 18 or older, who garners 10 signatures from constituents, eligible to stand in local balloting. At the same time, they incur the displeasure of the Communist Party, which has ruled unchallenged for more than six decades and which in practice determines the composition of representative bodies at every level.

Political aspirants range from lawyers and farmers to pensioners and even a leggy model. Hundreds have begun campaigns online through Chinese social-networking sites that, despite some restrictions, allow citizens normally limited by censorship of traditional media to connect in unprecedented ways. "My main reason for running is to let everyone know they have the right to vote and the right to stand as a candidate," says Li Zhiyong, a 41-year-old lawyer in the wealthy southern city of Shenzhen who declared his candidacy online in May. "A lot of people don't even know the basic procedure of elections, and I want to educate them about their rights."

The central government appeared, at first, to accept this grassroots activism, even as more explosive displays of people power in the Arab world were unnerving party leaders. Earlier this year, state-run media published cheery articles about unlikely candidates for local legislatures, including a high school student in Shenzhen with a passion for politics. But by June, the backlash — inevitable, it now feels, for a regime paranoid about any challenge to its power — had begun. "There is no such thing as an 'independent candidate,'" declared Xinhua, the state newswire. It said that while the law gives citizens "the right to vote and to be elected," various requirements had to be met before electoral officials approved a candidacy.

Intimidation of independents intensified. Some faced curiously timed tax audits and gave up their political ambitions. Others were locked up until their local polls closed. Still others discovered their names were missing from official candidate lists or complained of voter-roll or ballot-counting irregularities. The Shenzhen teenager's campaign practically disappeared from the blogosphere. In late September, a farmer from a village near the southern city of Foshan became the first known independent candidate to win during this election cycle. But hours after his victory, he was put under house arrest for days. In mid-October, reports surfaced in Shanghai that a man may have been beaten to death by a gang charged with intimidating voters.

Why is the government reacting so harshly? China today is unquestionably more prosperous than it was five years ago, when local polls were last held. But it is also more unstable, with farmers and white collar workers alike fed up with local corruption and widening income gaps. Last year, 180,000 "mass incidents" of protest took place, according to one Beijing academic, a huge increase from the 74,000 reported in 2004. As a result, Chinese spending on "internal security," a designation that includes everything from building jails to harassing dissidents, jumped by nearly 14% this year, to $95 billion. So important is what China calls "stability maintenance" that local officials' promotions are usually tied to their success in suppressing unrest. Any expression of political independence — even if it's over an issue as innocuous as a public-school bus route — can be viewed as inviting instability. "Almost none of the independent candidates will win," says Li Fan, who runs the World and China Institute in Beijing. Still, the veteran civil-society activist is hopeful about the better-known ones. "Through [social media] you now have a group of leaders who are famous. The Communist Party cannot be closed forever, and when time comes for reform, these are the people who carry our hopes."

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