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By Willy Lam

While much of the Middle East and North Africa has been swept by a "spring of democracy" since early this year, the Middle Kingdom is shrouded in deep winter. The latest manifestation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration's determination to "nip all destabilizing forces in the bud" consists of draconian ways to prevent roughly one hundred public intellectuals from running for local-level parliamentary elections.

This comes despite a host of articles in the official media pledging that citizens' rights, including the right to participate in politics, will be fully honored. Moreover, there are signs that the roll-back of political reform will continue after the change of leadership at the 18th CCP Congress scheduled for October next year.

Since May, scores of academics, writers, bloggers, businessmen and non-governmental organization activists have announced their intention to run in elections for People's Congresses (PC) at the level of counties and townships as well as municipal districts. Higher-level legislatures - such as those of big cities, provinces and the National People's Congress [NPC] - are not open for direct elections.

According to China's Election Law, any citizen can become a candidate for PC elections as long as he or she has secured the nominations of 10 citizens living in the relevant constituency. Big-name public intellectuals and community figures who wanted to become "independent candidates" for PCs included veteran labor activist Liu Ping from Jiangxi Province; Shanghai writer and businessman Xia Shang; Sichuan's Net-based social critic Li Chengpeng, whose blog has 3 million subscribers; and Guangzhou-based NGO activist Liang Shuxin, who runs a respected educational foundation.

None of these well-regarded intellectuals managed to become official candidates. This is despite the fact that all of them are considered moderate social critics, not political dissidents, like Liu Ping. She was disqualified from taking part in the recently held polls in the city of Xinyu, Jiangxi province.

Since she declared her desire to run in May, the activist was subjected to police harassment. Her flat was raided and she was briefly detained by public security officials. As a result of police intimidation, the majority of Xinyu residents who had nominated her for her candidature withdrew their support. Liu's political platform - ensuring that all employers observe the Labor Law - can hardly be called radical or destabilizing.

Similar incidents have happened to other aspiring candidates. After making known his desire to run in Shanghai's Jing'an district, several Ministry of State Security officers visited Xia Shang. Xia also noted the local taxation department wanted new audits of his two firms' accounts.

"I'm all for incremental, non-confrontational politics," said Xia, who added he did not understand why the authorities wanted him not to contest the elections. Sichuan's Li Chengpeng was prevented from becoming an official candidate because the majority of his nominees had succumbed to police pressure and been forced to withdraw their support.

While taking part in the Hong Kong Book Fair last July, Li said he faced immense pressure from the authorities. The popular blogger and writer said a Chengdu firm had backed out of a tennis sponsorship for his son due to pressure from a "mysterious [government] department".

Liang Shuxin, who lives in the middle-class Panyu district of Guangzhou, persevered until late last month. His platform - building an open grocery market to help fellow citizens beat inflation - was the least political among all the would-be legislators. Moreover, he had secured 23 nominations from citizens living in his constituency.

Local authorities announced in August, however, that all independent candidates running in the district must be non-CCP members and female. The "regulation" was waived due to protests by Liang, who is both male and a party member. The bulk of the activist's original nominees, however, withdrew their names after receiving warnings from police.

Apart from using force, the authorities have mounted a publicity blitz against the would-be candidates. An official at the NPC's Commission for Legislative Affairs (CLA) indicated in June that "there is no such a thing as an 'independent candidate' as this is not recognized by law."

He added that citizens wanting to run for PCs could only become official candidates after "discussion, consultation or primary elections" organized by the government's electoral committees. The CLA cadre also indicated "all campaign activities must be organized by electoral committees." This apparently meant that Internet-based campaigning is illegal. At the same time, the Global Times pointed out in an editorial that China's one-party system had no room for candidates who adopted an "opposing attitude" toward the authorities.

It warned "independent candidates could destroy the current [political] system by soliciting votes on the Internet".

Wang Zhanyang, a law professor at the Central Socialism Academy, stated "nobody can deny the legal basis of independent candidates ... The participation of independent candidates will be beneficial to social stability." According to lawyer and media commentator Chen Youxi, if the NPC's CLA does not recognize the term "independent candidates," the latter can present themselves simply as "candidates nominated by voters".

Chen accused the CLA of "playing games with words" to confuse the public. According to Beijing-based political scientist Fang Shaowei, conservative elements in the political system might have objections to the idea of "independent candidates" because of its Western origin. "It is true that the term 'independent candidates' comes from the West," Fang said, "but election itself is a Western concept and practice."

Irrespective of the protests of legal experts, the authorities are not in a mood for compromise. This was illustrated graphically by PC polls held in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, on September 8. Voters living in the metropolis and neighboring counties cast their ballots to pick 5,000-odd PC legislators from close to 9,000 candidates.

The CCP, China's eight so-called "democratic parties" (which are offshoots of and financed by the CCP) and recognized social and "mass" organizations nominated all of the candidates. Municipal authorities sent several hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes public and state security personnel to maintain order. Perhaps due to the lack of real competition, voters were noticeably unenthusiastic. In many voting booths, ballot casters were outnumbered by election officials and law enforcement agents by a large margin.

The message that Beijing seems to be sending by hitting out at would-be independent candidates is that it is tightening its control over all forms of real and possible dissent. Renmin University political science professor Zhang Ming pointed out that with the 18th CCP Congress just a year away, the leadership's motto was "upholding stability is the overriding task." Zhang continued "There were quite a few independent candidates winning in grassroots polls in the past, but this year, the authorities are taking no chances".

The plight of Yao Lifa, a primary-school teacher in the town of Qianjiang, Hebei province, illustrates well the direction in which the political wind is blowing. Yao became famous in 1998 when he successfully ran for a place in the Qianjiang PC as an independent candidate. In 2004, the year he left the legislature, Yao was invited by the State Department to visit the United States to have a first-hand look at American-style democracy.

He has since become an unofficial adviser to independent candidates nationwide. Earlier this year, however, this pioneer in Chinese-style grassroots democracy has been placed under police surveillance. During an interview with the Hong Kong media in early summer, Yao indicated "only independent candidates can speak up for the people, who are distrustful of the promises made by corrupt officials." During the interview, however, electricity in Yao's apartment was turned off, and later the police took the former legislator away for interrogation.

Apart from further constricting citizen's electoral rights, Beijing has turned on the screw since early this year in its perennial battle against elements deemed to pose a threat to public and state security. The NPC is expected soon to pass a revision of the criminal law that will allow the police to detain suspects in undisclosed locations for up to six months.

For "special cases involving national security, terrorism and major bribery", the proposed legislation says, suspects can be held in a secret place and their relatives need not be told. Human rights lawyers see this move as Beijing's effort to legalize draconian methods it had already been employing to silence dissidents.

In the past couple of years, globally known public intellectuals and NGO activists including artist Ai Weiwei and lawyer Gao Zhicheng had "disappeared" for months without any information being given to their spouses or relatives. Ai's lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan pointed out that "this new amendment will legalize 'forced disappearance'.".

At the same time, the CCP administration is devoting more funds and resources to policing the Internet, which is seen as providing a free and fast platform for dissidents and liberal intellectuals to broadcast their political viewpoints. "Internet opinion is spontaneous, but [it] increasingly shows signs of becoming organized," said a recent commentary by the party's top theoretical journal Qiushi ("Seeking Truth").

"Unless administration is vigorous, criminal forces, hostile forces, terrorist organizations and others could manipulate public sentiment by manufacturing bogus opinion on the Internet, damaging social stability and national security". Since the summer, Internet service providers have been asked to install more sophisticated software to police the information superhighway.

As Beijing party secretary Liu Qi noted in a speech to the IT community last month, Internet companies should "step up the application and management of new technology and absolutely put an end to fake and misleading information".

The enhancement of China's already formidable control apparatus has coincided with a spate of liberal-sounding messages given by senior cadres as well as the state media. Premier Wen Jiabao, for example, indicated earlier this month that government departments should do more in the area of transparency.

"We must create more conditions to enable the people to supervise the government," said Wen, who is widely deemed as the most liberal member of the Politburo. At a NPC press conference last year, Wen also pledged to "safeguard citizens' democratic rights, especially election rights, the right to know, to take part [in politics], to express themselves and to supervise [the government]".

In a similar vein, the People's Daily noted in a recent commentary that an "open government requires 'participatory citizens'." The article quoted US political scientist Samuel Huntington's dictum that political institutionalization and political participation would be conducive to social stability. "At the moment, the parameters for political participation are widening and enthusiasm [for participation] is increasing," it added, "Confusion can only be avoided if vehicles for participation can be improved and platforms for participation expanded."

Possibilities seem relatively low that the new leadership endorsed at the 18th CCP Congress will reinvigorate political reform, which has basically been frozen since the 17th CCP Congress in 2007. Vice President Xi Jinping, who is slated to become party chief, state president and commander-in-chief in little over one year's time, is regarded as a conservative more in tune with the ideals of Mao Zedong than "global values" that were once championed by Premier Wen.

Moreover, there is a solid consensus among the CCP's disparate factions that upholding political stability - which as practiced entails the ruthless crackdown on dissent - is the only way to ensure the CCP's status as China's "perennial ruling party". While many of those frustrated would-be candidates may run for grassroots-level PCs again four years down the road, the chances are not high that they can become officially recognized candidates, let alone win in the polls.

Dr Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He has worked in senior editorial positions in international media including Asiaweek newsmagazine, South China Morning Post, and the Asia-Pacific Headquarters of CNN. He is the author of five books on China, including the recently published Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges. Lam is an Adjunct Professor of China studies at Akita International University, Japan, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.