- Image 1 of 3
- Image 2 of 3
- Image 3 of 3
BEIJING – Liu Huizhen, a petite, soft-spoken farmer's daughter who wants to serve her community, might seem an unlikely threat to China's all-powerful Communist Party.
Yet, as Chinese vote Tuesday for low-level representatives, authorities have responded to Liu's bid as an independent candidate in a southwestern district of Beijing by sending several dozen men with buzz cuts and barking voices to follow her around and prevent her from meeting with voters.
The controls reflect the ruling party's determination to maintain a rock-solid hold on politics at all levels, galvanized in recent years by President Xi Jinping's steady accumulation of political authority that has made him the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s.
"My reason for joining in the people's congress elections is simple and innocent. Everyone has the right to take part in elections," Liu, 45, said in a recent interview. "These people are really taking it too far."
An initial attempt to interview Liu at the shack she's been living in since her home was demolished was blocked by at least seven men who identified themselves only as "volunteers" and parked a car across the road to block access.
Interviewed later over FaceTime, a video chat service, Liu said 10 to 20 people were outside her door and keeping her from leaving.
Such harassment appears routine for independent candidates amid elections for more than 2 million members of county and district people's congresses, the only level of citizens' representatives selected by direct vote. Across the country, independents report being kept under tight supervision and prevented from campaigning.
Grassroots pro-democracy activist Yao Lifa, who has been intermittently detained since first winning election in 1998, has been out of contact for weeks, apparently while under detention, supporters say. Yao has been prevented from running for his old seat.
Xi's administration has warned consistently against the pernicious influence of Western concepts such as free speech and multiparty democracy, while pursuing a brawny take on Chinese nationalism that has manifested itself in an assertive push for dominance in Asia.
Donald Trump's election in a highly divisive campaign in the United States is seen as bolstering such sentiments, with Beijing's leaders increasingly convinced that their authoritarian system will prove triumphant while America's global influence steadily declines, analysts say.
"If China wants to say democracy is not a good thing, this (U.S. election) certainly is good for them," said David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
This year's local polls are particularly significant as a precursor to the selection of the roughly 2,300 delegates to next year's party national congress, where Xi will gain a second five-year term as party chief.
Despite the various barriers imposed, the elections have attracted a wave of independent candidates hailing broadly from China's burgeoning "rights defense" movement. They include those seeking redress over personal issues such as the confiscation of property and idealists working for fair competition in politics, said Li Fan, an advocate of elections reforms in China.
"They want to use the position of people's congress delegates to first, have their say, and second, to use legal means to vote or take policy actions to supervise and rein in illegal government actions," said Li. An additional motivation comes from the protection such representatives enjoy from arrest and detention, he said.
"They're not government officials so their power is limited, but they have the right to speak and to supervise government," Li said, pointing to the example of past delegates to Beijing's Haidian district congress who passed measures to allow the children of migrants to attend local schools.
On the surface, the rules for registering as a candidate are simple and inclusive. Apart from those put forward by the party, official organizations or government work units, candidates need endorsements from just 10 supporters to qualify for the polls.
In reality, however, the government and party officials interfere by screening candidates, preventing undesirables from running or even taking office should they win, advocacy group China Human Rights Defenders said in a recent report.
Most would-be independents are party members or have received some form of official approval and can be expected to toe the party line, said Li, who was interviewed in Hong Kong.
While China has eight mostly tiny minority parties, they exist only to advise and assist the ruling party, not to offer a political alternative. The country's rulers treat the idea of a loyal opposition as anathema and even factionalism within the Communist Party is formally condemned.
Because people's congresses at the city, provincial and national level are mainly elected by delegates at the next-lowest level, their loyalty to the ruling party is virtually assured. Only delegates to congresses at the county, township and urban district level are directly elected.
Following a brief period of openness, the government's attitude toward independent candidates began hardening a decade ago and grew especially tough during elections in 2011 as Xi was preparing to take power, Li said.
"The law hasn't changed. It's the government's attitude that has changed," Li said.
Liu, the Beijing candidate, said that given the oppressive surveillance, she's been limited to communicating with potential voters via China's popular but heavily censored microblogging services. The entire experience has been depressing, she allows.
"It's affecting my life. I'm feeling the pressure," Liu said.
Associated Press video journalists Josie Wong and Johnson Lai contributed to this report from Hong Kong.