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

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The superstar of the rock-China vote is Li Chengpeng, a charismatic ex-sports journalist who seems as proud of his son's tennis game as he is of his new political pastime. The 43-year-old is one of China's most irreverent social critics and, with 3.74 million microblog followers, one of the country's biggest online personalities. In May, he declared his intention to run for a seat in the southwestern city of Chengdu on Sina Weibo — a Twitter-style service with 200 million users that has flourished in China (Twitter itself is banned). Within a couple of hours, around 3,000 people had posted excited comments about his announcement; by June around a hundred others had declared their candidacies on Sina Weibo, and many more followed later in the summer. "For many intellectuals, being detached seems to be an easy way out," Li wrote in his online manifesto. "[But] I am eager to tell everyone that we are all shareholders of our country."

Courage Under Fire
Despite his popularity, Li's campaign is hamstrung by officials. He can't print campaign posters. He can't give political speeches at public gatherings. He can't even get the local election committee to tell him exactly when the polls will be. "I'm worried that if I leave town for a couple weeks, they'll hold the elections when I'm gone," he says. The best-selling author is now facing other woes. A 180,000-word manuscript he recently submitted to the censors — a normal process in China — came back with 130,000 words excised, and rumors are floating online that he is dropping out of the race. Li remains defiant. "Everything I do, every call I make, is known by the authorities, so you can say I live a Truman Show existence," he says. "But I'm never going to give up my candidacy."

If a celebrity has so much trouble campaigning, consider the trio of women aiming to run in the port city of Tianjin. They have no expectations of winning or of even getting their names on the ballot. In fact, entrepreneur Ma Huixia admits that until she was politicized by what she says was unfair treatment of her son by officialdom a couple of years ago, she was part of a local committee that went door to door advising voters which three of five candidates they should vote for, lest their ballots be declared invalid. "The government says it serves the people, but that's a joke," Ma says, before being interrupted by a phone call from a public-security officer monitoring her whereabouts. "So what has to happen is for normal people to do the job our corrupt leaders aren't doing." Fellow Tianjin aspirant Dai Xiuying, who was twice thrown into one of China's so-called black jails (detention facilities that aren't part of the court-bound prison system), puts it more starkly: "As citizens, we must fight for our dignity. Otherwise we are just living dead."

Back in Beijing, an illusion of electoral freedom continues. Across the capital, giant banners proclaim: VOTING IS GLORIOUS. VOTING IS A BASIC RIGHT OF CITIZENS. Pamphlets distributed in homes say elections show that China "belongs to the people."

Independent candidate Ye, who carried the flowers for her detained colleague, doesn't believe a word of it. "These are elections with Chinese characteristics," she says. "The government will pressure my supporters. If a candidate has a job, their boss will push them to stop running. Candidates are put in jail. I knew that running would be difficult, but I never thought it would be this bad." As she talks, six security officers video and photograph her, and she stops to smile and wave at them.

At the police station with Ye on Oct. 13 were Zhan Jiang, a 34-year-old Communist Party member, and Liu Sumin, a 72-year-old retiree. They are part of a group of 13 independent candidates in Beijing who joined together in September to put their campaign pledges online. All have faced official surveillance, with some enduring what is known as "administrative detention," or incarceration without trial. When the three returned home from their fruitless wait for Wu's release, they were placed under virtual house arrest with 24-hour guards. Wu herself can no longer run. Her political rights were stripped because of her 15 days in custody — it's no coincidence, her family says, that she was jailed for exactly the amount of time that would disqualify her from standing.

The last her brother heard, Wu was being forced to tour Mount Emei — a Buddhist place of atonement in southwestern China. People go from all over the country to meditate at Mount Emei and confess their misdeeds to the bodhisattva who gained enlightenment on the sacred peak. For China's paranoid leaders, it seems that the simple act of running for election is a sin requiring expiation and forgiveness from the heavens.

— with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing

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