It’s not possible to avoid coming hard times economically, but democracy is making slight inroads. Can they get there without an violent overthrow? Probably not, but maybe.
The local congresses — the lowest rung in China’s government structure, equivalent to neighborhood commissions — are relatively powerless bodies in the complex system that the party maintains as a formal display of grass-roots participation. Until now, they have been filled almost entirely with candidates from the party, or people endorsed by it.
A few candidates not affiliated with the Communist Party have run in past elections for local congresses, but they received virtually no media coverage and few votes. This time around, the independents — academics, journalists, students, bloggers, lawyers and farmers — are attracting widespread publicity and mounting serious campaigns, using social media and live Internet broadcasts.
The Communist Party seems to be grappling to find a coherent response. “Some are cheering from the sidelines,” said Elizabeth Economy, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. “There are certainly others who view this as very threatening.”
The wide swath of candidates, Economy said, “shows the breadth of interest in real reform.” But as to whether the party will allow the independent candidates to prevail, or whether they could affect the system from inside if they did, she and other analysts sounded far more cautious.
The party has reacted harshly to some independent candidates. Some have been harassed by security officials and placed under house arrest. Others report being pressured to drop their candidacies. Xu Yan, a candidate in Hongzhou city, in Zhejiang province, said he quit his job after his employer was visited several times by tax authorities. Zhang Kai, the Beijing lawyer, said he has been stopped from traveling abroad.
The independents have a powerful new tool on their side: weibo, the hugely popular Twitter-like Chinese microblogging sites that have allowed candidates to announce their intentions, lay out their positions and reach potential supporters.
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