World and Nation

In China, political outsiders turn to microblog campaigns

BEIJING — For at least some candidates seeking parliamentary seats in local Chinese elections this year, the winning formula is the very antithesis of what works in the United States.

Here, they keep their heads down and elucidate no platform. And if they campaign at all, their politicking is discreetly low-key.

“The last thing you want to do is gather people together,” Yao Bo, a well-known social commentator aiming for a legislative seat in a Beijing district, said in October.

That is because Yao is running as an independent in an election that is ostensibly open to all comers, but in fact is stacked in favor of the Communist Party’s handpicked candidates. To have any hope of cracking the system, some candidates argue, an outsider must either be so famous that he or she cannot be blocked from running without an outcry, or so anonymous that the authorities are caught off guard.

In past years, no strategy has worked. But in a turnabout, this year’s push by outsiders to infiltrate China’s local political process is creating ripples, partly because of the momentum and visibility they are building via Twitter-like services on the Chinese Internet. Not only are there more candidates — estimates range from more than 100 to thousands — but they are also no longer faceless challengers who can be shoved aside without a whimper.

Many if not most will fail to make it onto the ballot, much less get elected, because of myriad government impediments, Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute, a nongovernmental research center in Beijing, said in an interview. Nonetheless, he said, the surge in such candidacies is “a very strong indication that the government cannot continue to totally dominate public policy.”

Typically, elections to China’s local people’s congresses, the lowest parliamentary tier, excite little interest. More than 2 million lawmakers are chosen in the only government posts — other than village leaders and the odd government-approved experiment — that are determined by direct election. Ordinary Chinese typically sit out the referendums, held every three to five years, because they view the results as foreordained.

But this election cycle, which began in May and will continue through next year, is already proving different.

Consider the candidacy of Guo Huojia, 59, a vegetable and fruit seller with a primary school education. He has battled local authorities outside Guangzhou, in southern China, for four years over what he claims are illegal government seizures of farms for development.