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Thursday, December 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

China's declaration of independents

By Seattle Times news services

An elderly woman places her vote into a mobile ballot box held by an election staffer in Beijing yesterday.
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BEIJING — Millions of people packed polling stations in Beijing yesterday to elect local representatives, in a show of democracy marked for the first time by the emergence of a handful of independent candidates.

One-party rule is the norm in China, which installs its top communist officials in equivalent government leadership posts. But upper-level leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao, have extolled the virtues of democracy at the most local levels.

Just as vehemently, though, they say a large country in the throes of development and modernization isn't prepared for a popular vote to choose its national or even municipal leadership.

"This is because China is such a huge country. It has a big population. It is very underdeveloped," the premier said in an interview with The Washington Post. "So conditions are not ripe for direct elections at the higher levels."

China's Communist Party began permitting democratic elections in rural villages in 1987, hoping to quell mounting dissatisfaction that coincided with China's move from a state-run to a market economy, which has brought sweeping social and economic change. The elections yesterday were held to select representatives to the People's Congresses in eight Beijing districts. These grass-roots delegates in turn elect deputies to higher levels. But even those more powerful deputies only advise the city government, which is appointed by the Communist Party.

Until now, the candidates were always nominated and supported by official organizations like a workplace or a street committee. Voters were told en masse whom to support. Some probably did not cast their own votes.

While the rules never banned self-nominated, or independent, candidates, there was never any individual interest in trying to challenge the system, except for a brief time around 1980.

But this year in the southern industrial city of Shenzhen, four independent candidates campaigned and one won a seat. In Beijing, there are two dozen independent candidates, including a few university students and other political activists such as Shu Kexin.

Shu, a write-in candidate who's chairman of a property-owners association, said the independents wanted to test the election law. Shu said he learned how vague the regulations were when he brought aboard a campaign manager, a young law student named Zhu Sihao, and the two began studying the rules to see if they could put up campaign posters.

"The law doesn't tell us you can do it, but it also doesn't tell us you can't do it," Zhu said.

After Shu began going door to door to meet voters, he received a visit from an official: "He said, 'I'll give you a suggestion. Don't do that. It's not proper.' "

"What makes it interesting is that a tiny, few Chinese individuals are beginning to think it's worth contesting these seats — even though the system is stacked against them," said Phyllis Chang, an observer of Chinese politics who runs China Law and Development, a consulting firm.

State television spent several minutes covering Chinese leaders voting in the city's Xicheng District, including President Hu Jintao and retired President Jiang Zemin. "I'm very happy to cast my ballot and exercise my right under China's constitution," Hu said. "Voting like this will help us build the well-off society that we're striving for."

At the Beijing Water Group office, among the polling sites permitted by the government to accommodate foreign journalists, batches of young voters were ushered in by their college instructors yesterday. Many didn't know whom — or what — they were voting for. They were told to draw circles next to three of four candidates' names.

"The process of making China more democratic is quickening," said an election worker named Chen, who lauded the presence of noncommunists on the ballot. "Representatives cannot just represent one segment of society. They have to represent all segments."

Nearby, at the Niujie Municipal Hall, voters were mostly retirees who in some cases did know whom they were voting for.

"Retirees are more aware," said a poll worker who only gave his surname, Ban. "People who work might only read one newspaper a day. But retirees read five newspapers a day, they watch TV, and some even use the Internet."

Like much of Beijing, the neighborhood around the Niujie Municipal Hall was in the process of being knocked down for new construction. Voters cited the renovations as well as traffic woes as key campaign issues.

"The government is tearing down a lot of old decrepit houses, which is good, but it needs to be done faster," said Yu Zhenhe, 65, a retired office worker who carried his bird in a cage with him to the polling site. "If there are problems in our district, we must have representatives who can do beneficial work for the people."

Compiled from Reuters, The Associated Press and Knight Ridder Newspapers reports.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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