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Democratic Election in China Through One Student's Eyes

Posted: Dec 26, 2011

An unprecedented number of independent candidates ran for local office in China this year. One case occurred at my school, Beijing Foreign Studies University, where two independent candidates running against the official choices for the neighborhood People’s Congress drew considerable attention, including a story in the New York Times.

Using Western-style campaigning and canvassing for votes, they posed a genuine challenge to the official candidates, likely for the first time in China. They roused the enthusiasm of students and faculty, created an unparalleled openness and competitiveness, and faced government repression.

As a journalism student, taking history of western journalism and academic writing with one candidate, political scientist Qiao Mu, and serving as a campaign volunteer for the other, I saw it all up close. The election was our first moment of democratic participation, and we took part with excitement and idealism --and when neither of the independents made it in the end, disappointment. But what matters is the seed of democracy and citizenship the candidates sowed, among residents, netizens and, most importantly, young people.

In China, independent candidates are write-ins; their names are not printed on the ballot.

My classmates and I were excited when Mr. Qiao unveiled his intent to run for office, first in class to us and then with a post on his popular blog. Soon he was in the limelight, stirring heated discussion among us.

Posters and leaflets carried his campaign slogan (“With Qiao Mu in BFSU, the election is more splendid”), which he also printed in eye-catching colors on a grey hoodie he sometimes wore on campus. He ordered cheap cloth handbags with a colorful Photoshopped image and his slogan, in a not-so-successful attempt to attract students to buy them.

Online, he used blog posts, emails and videos to communicate with the constituents in the district, mostly BFSU students and teachers. He opened an account on Renren.com, China’s Facebook. On Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter, he posted frequently to introduce himself and his ideas about democracy and elections.

“It‘s time to change, change from bureaucracy to grassroots, from square speaker to social media activist, change from old to new. The relay will go on,” he wrote.

One funny online image Photoshopped Qiao’s face onto Superman’s body and another onto the body of Wallace in Brave Heart. Their captions included the words, “Qiao Mu… Grassroots, sincere and professional.”

Offline, Mr. Qiao rallied a team of student volunteers who handed out leaflets, took photos and made publicity videos. He brought his wife and little daughter to visit student cafeterias and dormitories to get suggestions and listen to students’ complaints – mostly about their lives on campus.

Government intervention

But amid the excitement were bad omens. At an early campaign planning meeting, Qiao said two security officials came disguised as students, and one took a photo of his contact list and then hurried out.

Online, some people accused Mr. Qiao of ego-driven self-aggrandizement and posing. “At least I took the time and trouble,” he responded. “It proves that I care about your vote.”

He persisted. Qiao Mu came up with a series of easy-to-carry-out proposals to improve student life. They included a price reduction and better sanitation in the student cafeteria, greater transparency in the university budget and easier access to vacant classrooms for studying, which increased his popularity among students.

Within two weeks, some of his proposals became reality. I was surprised and happy to find the food prices in the student cafeteria had dropped noticeably, and in the largest classroom building, vacant room numbers were displayed on the entrance screen.

An official notice on BFSU.cn, our online campus community, listed the changes, but the university credited them to the official candidates: “Vigorously pushed by the two official candidates Peng Long and Cai Jianfeng, the school decided….”

Qiao Mu’s name was not mentioned. But some students didn’t buy it. They posted comments that read, “Thank you, Mr. Qiao.”

His constituent-centered gesture earned him increasing support, and Mr. Qiao said he was confident he would win. I thought he would too.

But as the election drew near, the political pressure on him intensified.

With one week to go, Mr. Qiao’s Renren and Sina Weibo account was blocked, and when he opened additional accounts, they were all blocked, one after another, barring him from communicating with voters online. Personal blogs accusing him of previous immoralities and hypocrisies, and questioning his motives, appeared on Renren.com, reminding me of the essay "Running for Governor" by Mark Twain (a popular satire in China because of its portrayal of the hypocrisy of American democracy). Mr. Qiao’s campaign video also disappeared. Dormitory managers were told not to let him inside.

On Nov. 5, three days before the vote, as I walked past my department building close to midnight, I saw the lights of the teachers’ offices were, strangely, all on. The next day I learned that our “counselor teachers,” who are in charge of student affairs, and other academic officials, had spent the night persuading Qiao’s student volunteers to quit his campaign. A friend told me they were warned, and in some cases, threatened with danger to their future careers if they didn’t back out.

Rumors and conspiracies

Rumors and conspiracy theories began to circulate that Qiao Mu was backed and protected by the American embassy, sponsored by western media, and that even if he failed, he could escape with his family to the United States, leaving his supporters behind and vulnerable to possible future punishment.

For fear of the invisible power of punishment in one way or another, many students quit. Even more turned silent.

Another blow to Mr. Qiao’s campaign came from Wu Qing, a 74-year-old BFSU English professor who has been a local People’s Representative for 27 years. Wu declared her own candidacy with less than 10 days to go. As the daughter of Bing Xin, a renowned and highly respected female writer in China, Wu Qing has long been known for her outspokenness and integrity. She was hailed by the media as the “Most Troublesome Representative” in China for daring to air opposition and challenge officials when others were obedient. I was inspired by her charisma and dogged pursuit of democracy and began to volunteer. Her emergence posed a great threat and would surely divert a considerable amount of his support.

Mrs. Wu quickly created videos, posters, leaflets and opened Renren and Weibo accounts. Some posters were ripped down by security guards on official orders, but strangely (or perhaps not), as the invisible grip on Mr. Qiao tightened, Wu Qing’s online presence was undisturbed, allowing her to compete for votes. She was also permitted into dorms to talk to students, and her popularity gradually mounted.

In sharp contrast, the two official candidates, Peng Long and Cai Jianfeng, hardly did any publicity work, except putting up posters with their image and brief introductions, written in unadorned, bureaucratic-style language, on campus billboards, in dorm entrances, teaching buildings and cafeterias.

On Nov. 6, two days before the vote, the tension climaxed. At lunch time, as I walked past the student cafeteria, I saw Qiao Mu standing alone and silent opposite the entrance, in his campaign hoodie. On his face he wore a white surgical mask, perhaps to imply he had been muffled. Silently, he was extending his arm upward, holding a megaphone, and a sign, “Vote ‘Others,’ Grassroots Representative.”

His bosses, also under great political pressure, stood not far from him. They tried to persuade him to leave, but he ignored them. His team of volunteers, once numbering scores of students, was made up of just two people.

The two days before the vote, Qiao was followed by two security guards everywhere he went. I couldn’t enter my department building without showing my student ID to guards, who interrogated me about where I was going and who I wanted to see. Guards were posted all over campus, and some said there were plainclothes police as well. It was almost impossible for people without a university ID to get in.

Mrs. Wu’s publicizing effort offline, mainly carried out by her student volunteers, including me, also ceased, in case we should also be warned or threatened. She continued to convey her ideas to voters online.

On Election Day, a red carpet led to two ballot boxes in the gymnasium lobby. When the voting ended at midnight, I was among dozens of students, mostly backers of Mr. Qiao and Mrs. Wu, who came to watch and take photos as the ballot boxes were sealed and put into the trunk of a car. Then we followed the car to an office building nearby, distrusting that the vote count would be fair. Our names were recorded at the building, but we were denied access to the counting room, told we would disturb the counters. Most of us spent a sleepless night in the hallway, watching through the door's glass windows.

The chief voting supervisor emerged at 5:00 a.m. Peng Long, university vice president and business school dean, had won, garnering 4,127 votes. Qiao got 1,296.

With my hopes dashed, I left the hallway.

That morning, Mr. Qiao seemed cool, congratulating Mr. Peng and thanking his supporters, saying he was “returning to my work and normal life.” However, I heard from his graduate students he shed tears when talking about the election loss.


So the first election in my life ended as a disappointment. But we students have awakened, and started to act for a change. We experienced a new sense of grassroots democratic participation, one that relied on new digital tools in the era of Web 2.0. In this sense, we feel like winners. In my eyes, despite his failure, Qiao is a role model and a standout, with his professionalism, among China’s many cases of independent candidates.

“I have achieved the goal,” Qiao said in one of his open letters. “For the first time ever, teachers and students felt so close to the election. They felt that someone really cared about their vote and they could exercise their right.”

Whether it’s the same candidates, or others, in five years when we vote again, I expect a heated open campaign, and that is the prize. China’s imminent change in national leadership makes it hard to predict whether we’ll experience repression again, or even intimidation, imprisonment and bloodshed. But I choose to be optimistic. I expect more elections marked by reason, fairness and justice.

Vincent Fang (Fang Zheng), 22, is a fourth-year journalism student from Anhui province now living in Beijing.

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