CDB Editorial: the Public Interest and Politics

China Development Brief, no. 50 (Summer 2011)

中文 English

This year, counties and townships across China will elect representatives for local People’s Congress. By the end of 2012, there will be approximately two million representatives at the county and township levels.

“Without your permission, I cannot represent you,” proclaims a poster promoting Li Chengpeng designed by his online supporters. The poster depicts Li staring off into the distance. Prior to this, he used his blog to announce that he would campaign to represent Chengdu’s Wuhou district.

Li is a writer and commentator on current events, and a leader of online opinion boards. He is known for his humor and sharp wit and has a history of exposing corruption and injustice. From feeling “simply powerless to speak out” to running for election, Li has made significant strides. He has carefully studied the Election Law and the Constitution and “is trying to practice his rights as a citizen.”

In fact, since this year, many others like Li have emerged around the country as independent candidates. According to the Election Law, individuals may run if they have the nomination of ten people. These individuals include writers, university professors, intellectuals and members of the media, as well as ordinary citizens and college students. They include a laid-off worker in Jiangxi named Li Ping, Guangzhou’s Liang Shuxin who is the director of business operation for Tianya online community and organizer of micro-philanthropy activities (微公益) , columnist and writer Wuyue Sanren, author Xia Shang, Associate Professor Wu Danhong of China University of Political Science and Law, and Xiong Wei of the Beijing New Enlightenment Research Center on Citizen Participation in Legislation (北京新启蒙公民参与立法研究中心). What these individuals share in common is a non-governmental background. Compared to more conventional candidates, these independent candidates may be a dime a dozen but they are more impressive1.

Interestingly, although Li makes grand statements on the blogs, his campaign promises are on “small” and “trivial” issues. His goals are to “help Wuhou district’s residents better communicate with the government, lower food prices, improve traffic congestion, and solve school bus issues.” Any candidate who attempts to represent the public and truly live up to his responsibilities will inevitably face deep-rooted and complex calculations. Whether this is a campaign tactic, Li’s goals seem pragmatic and low-key. Other independent candidates also have their own clear goals.

In June, in response to the emergence of independent candidates, the NPC’s Legal Committee responded that “official candidates running to represent townships and counties in the NPC must be legally nominated by a political party, people’s organizations, and voters. There can only be official candidates; the so-called ‘independent candidates’ have no legal basis.” This statement started widespread discussion on grassroot elections. The word “independent” is actually used to distinguish between the institutional affiliation of candidates and has a strong bottom-up (自下而上) connotation. According to an individual affiliated with an NGO, “If citizens want to be called ‘independent candidates’ they do not need a legal basis. Procedurally speaking, it’s difficult to distinguish these candidates from candidates supported by government officials.” In fact, many candidates with a government background were also nominated by ten individuals. He suggests using the more rigorous term of “jointly-nominated candidate” instead2.

More important than labels is the fact that the outlook for independent candidates is not encouraging. The magazine Nanfeng Chuang (南风 窗) published an article titled “A Record of Ups and Downs for Independent Representatives Over the Last Ten Years.” The piece summarized the campaigns and tenures of successful candidates such as Wang Liang, Xu Zhiyong, Sima Nan, Yao Lifa, Nie Hailiang, Huang Songhai, etc. It discovered that “in an institutionally-constrained environment, most candidates struggled, many retreated early, and others announced defeat. Overall, the few candidates who succeeded in the elections had only a limited impact in promoting the construction of grassroots democracy.”

However, “democracy is a good thing.” While these pioneering individuals did not achieve success, their appearance brings hope. Democracy is a right, and it requires citizen initiative and participation to be lasting. Independent candidates are a reflection of the bottom-up energy in society. People hope that independent candidates can bring different voices and represent different interests in the NPC, change people’s impression that the NPC is just a rubber stamp, and foster confidence in the government.

Democracy is a simple concept but difficult to execute. It requires persistence and perseverance, and a successful and democratic election requires citizen awareness and a mature civil society.

Recently General Secretary Hu Jintao repeatedly mentioned the need for “improved and innovative management of society.” In managing society, the government has expressed new opinions and embarked on new initiatives. The issue of social management is about increasing public space and allowing more self-organization in society rather than using this opportunity to expand governmental power and increase controls over society. The reality is that civil society has been developing for a number of years and is in need of new methods of management from the government. Today, the government needs to assign a high value to civil society. An emphasis on the need for reform in the management of society reflects an end to the GDP fairytale because worshipping GDP will not bring about fairness and justice to society3.

Similar to the issue of independent candidates, civil society has dealt with various issues for many years. It strives for cooperation between citizens and the state and a new system for dealing with social disorder. In comparison to independent candidates’ participation in the NPC elections, the main purpose of NGOs is to unite the people’s cooperative spirit, accumulate social capital, and promote positive social construction by involving citizens in charity and public welfare and advocating for good governance. Recently, some NGOs have attempted to enter communities and act as independent third party mediators in conflicts. They have persisted in a difficult environment and deserve our attention. Through subtle exercises in democratic consultation, they have helped people understand the rights and obligations of citizens and respect the rules of democracy. In a broad sense, they employ different means – whether pushing for electoral democracy (选举式民主) or consultative democracy (协商式民主)– but the end is one and the same. With respect to the government, citizens participating in elections, along with the gradual growth of civil society, all support a system of checks and balances on power that will put us on the path toward social harmony4.


  1. Editor’s Note: These “independent” candidates in other words are from outside the state-supported system, unlike conventional candidates that come from and are supported by the system. 

  2. Editor’s Note: In other words, the term “independent candidate” is merely a descriptive term, not a legal one. It is used to describe a candidate who does not enjoy government support or affiliation, someone who emerged from the grassroots. The point here is that it is misleading to equate so-called “independent candidates” with candidates who are “jointly nominated” since many government-supported candidates are also “jointly-nominated”. 

  3. Editor’s Note: The idea of “social management” (shehui guanli) is a major theme in the government’s 12th Five Year Plan and reflects the leadership’s recognition that it needs to pay more attention to regulating an increasingly diverse, vocal and rights-conscious society and to resolving social tensions and conflicts. How it goes about managing society however is up for debate and discussion. The editorial here takes the position that social management should be about empowering NGOs, not repressing them. 

  4. Editor’s Note: In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has been experimenting with expanding “democracy” within a one-party system. One path has been electoral democracy which involves holding direct elections at the local level, and contested elections in party congresses whereby there are more candidates than seats. Another path has been consultative democracy which involves soliciting feedback from Communist Party members, the eight “friendship” parties, and selected constitutents on public policy. 

公益和政治

今年,全国县乡两级人大拉开了换届选举的帷幕,到2012年底将产生县乡两级人大代表200多万人。 “没有您的授权,我不能代表您。”在网友设计的参选海报上,李承鹏目视远方,对选民告白。此前,他通过微博宣布,将在成都市武侯区竞选区人大代表。

李成鹏兼有作家、时事评论人、网络意见领袖等多种角色,他素以文字幽默、辛辣和犀利著称,从足坛反腐揭黑、批判拆迁中的社会不公中一路走来。从感到“仅 仅是发言的无力感”,到此番参选人大代表的具体行动,可以看做李承鹏知行合一的一次转身。他认真研读了《选举法》和《宪法》,“尝试实践公民权利”。

事实上,今年以来,像李承鹏这样宣布以独立候选人身份参选的公民群体,已在各地涌现。他们希望按照《选举法》规定,通过10人以上联名推荐的方式参选。 他们中有文人、作家、高校教师等知识分子和媒体人士,也有普通市民和大学生。江西下岗女工刘萍、广州市民天涯社区商务运营总监,微公益发起者梁树新、专栏 作家五岳散人、作家夏商、中国政法大学副教授吴丹红、北京新启蒙公民参与立法研究中心负责人熊伟均在其列。这个群体的共同特点,是他们作为参选人的非官方 背景。相比成规模的海量候选人,独立候选人乃沧海一粟,却更加引人瞩目。

有趣的是,在博客上总是高调畅言的李承鹏,参选目标却是一些 “鸡毛蒜皮”的“小”事。他希望能够“帮助(成都)武侯区的居民与政府沟通,减少流通环节、降低菜价,改善交通拥挤状况,解决校车问题”。任何一位试图代 表民意、真正行使职责的人大代表,必然会面临盘根错节的复杂博弈,无论是否出于参选策略,他的目标似乎务实而“低调”。其他独立参选者,也有着自己清晰的 参选目标。

6月,针对独立候选人现象,全国人大法工委负责人回应,“我国的县乡人大代表候选人,只有由各政党、各人民团体和选民依法 按程序提名推荐的‘代表候选人’,经讨论、协商或经预选确定的‘正式代表候选人’,没有所谓的‘独立候选人’。‘独立候选人’没有法律依据。”此言引发的 广泛关注和讨论,无意间成为基层选举的一次公众普及和宣传。“独立”二字实际上表明了与体制渠道产生的候选人之间的区别,有着浓厚的自下而上的意味。不 过,按照关注选举的一位NGO人士的说法,“公民愿意自称 ‘独立候选人’无需法律根据。其实在法律程序上这类候选人和大多数政府官员支持的候选人很难区分。”实际上,有大量的官方背景的候选人,本来就是以10人 联名的方式出现的。他建议使用“联名推荐候选人”这个更严谨的说法。

比称谓更值得关注的,是独立候选人面临的并不乐观的现实。《南风 窗》在“独立人大代表十年沉浮录”一文中,对曾经成功当选的王亮、许志永、司马南、姚立法、聂海亮、黄松海等人的参选和履职经历进行了还原,发现“在一个 体制性的制约环境里,无不左支右绌,其中几位早就草草收场,另几人则已宣告失败。而整体来看,零星的成功当选者对于基层民主建设的推动显然非常有限。”

然而,“民主是个好东西”,即便先行者的遭际并不乐观,但独立候选人群体的再度涌现,仍然让人们充满期待。民主作为一种权利,需要公民主动行使、参与和 演练才能坐实。独立候选人正是自下而上的社会活力的体现,人们期待,独立候选人能够将不同的声音和利益博弈引入人大,活跃人大的气氛,改变人们对人大作为 橡皮图章的不良印象,树立公众对民主政治的信心。  民主知易行难,需要持久的恒心和毅力,成功有效的选举和民主制度的运行,仰赖全体公民意识的养成和成熟的公民社会。

近来,胡锦涛总书记多次提出要“加强和创新社会管理” ,政府在社会管理上也频频出现种种创新的舆论和举措,屡屡透出新的信号。社会管理的题中之义,在于扩大公共空间,释放社会的自组织活力,而非借此扩大公权 力,加强社会控制。事实上,公民社会早已通过多年的实践积淀,呼应着政府社会管理创新的举措。时至今日,公民社会终于走到了需要从政治高度明确其价值意义 的时点。强调社会管理创新,标志着唯GDP神话时代的终结,因为GDP崇拜并不能自动带来社会的公平正义。

与当下的独立候选人现象一 样,公民社会在各个问题领域的多年努力,均是争取公民与国家互动,试图破解社会失序和冲突难题的一种体制创新。相比独立候选人参加基层人大选举的参政行 为,公民社会(NGO)主要在社会领域凝聚民众的合作精神,积累社会资本,以公民自组织从事慈善、公益(环保),倡导良治的方式重构社会。近来,一些 NGO还开始尝试进入社区,作为独立的第三方介入冲突的调解、斡旋,他们在漫长琐碎、充满人性弱点的环境里的坚持,同样值得关注,其潜在的涵义,都是通过 细微的民主协商训练,使民众理解和习得公民的权利和义务,尊重民主的规则。 在宽泛的意义上,他们在方式和途径上表现各异,或推动选举式民主,或提携协商式民主,相辅相成,殊途同归。相对于政府而言,公民独立参选基层人大、公民社 会的逐步成长,都将对权力提供约束和制衡机制,以此探寻社会和谐的途径。

Translated by Deanna Dong

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