Tuesday was Election Day in Beijing, with thousands of seats for party-run local congresses up for grabs. Outside community centers and police stations, officials urged people to “treasure democratic rights” and “cast your sacred and solemn ballot.”
But before the elections, there were no debates, town hall-style forums, social media wars or other hallmarks of participatory democracy.
Instead, the government responded with bluster and bullying, detaining activists and confiscating campaign materials. President Xi Jinping, who has vigorously blocked threats to the Communist Party’s dominance since coming to power in 2012, has taken a harsh stance against advocates for democracy and has sought to limit Western influences.
For the small but spirited band of activists who had been working for years to shake the status quo, the election results were disheartening, to say the least.
“There is no way I can be elected,” said Gao Changqi, 66, a retired architectural technician who participated in the elections in Beijing, adding that he had been trailed by the police. “The system won’t let it happen.”
Despite the Communist Party’s monopoly on power in China and its strenuous efforts to limit dissent, the government has permitted elections at the local level for decades, eager to show to the world that China, too, has democracy.
Every five years, the government encourages citizens over the age of 18 without a criminal record — about 900 million people this year — to choose representatives for local People’s Congresses, the lowest level of the Chinese Legislature. The elections are staggered, and by the end of the year, about 2.5 million such representatives will be selected across China.
But the elections are democratic in name only. The party picks its preferred candidates and leaves no room for an upset. Even after a candidate is elected, his or her powers are severely restricted, given the centralized nature of decision-making in China. The Legislature is widely considered to be a rubber stamp of Mr. Xi and the Communist Party.
In recent years, activists and scholars have urged the government to allow more competition in local elections to give people a way to voice their frustrations.
Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said having a genuine legislative process in which all qualified citizens were allowed to run for office was crucial to maintaining stability in China.
“Improving the People’s Congress system is a necessary step toward reform,” he said. “If this route is blocked, then it could prove hard to achieve social stability in the future.”
The Communist Party, however, has been reluctant to change course. In 2011, as independent candidates embraced social media to outline policy proposals and rally supporters, the government intervened, threatening volunteers and refusing to add independents to ballots.
The elections this year are the first of their kind under Mr. Xi, whose tenure has been marked by tighter control of civil society and a harsh treatment of dissidents. Over the past several weeks, the authorities have carried out a far-reaching campaign to rein in unsanctioned candidates across the country, placing some under house arrest and barring others from campaigning.
In Shanghai, which holds elections on Wednesday, the police detained several activists who were distributing leaflets for an independent candidate, according to news reports.
In Qianjiang City, in the central province of Hubei, activists said in interviews that they had been followed by the police and blocked from speaking with voters.
Wu Lijuan, 50, a former bank employee who is now a human rights advocate, said the police had instructed residents to cut off communication with her and not vote for her. She praised the American political system and argued that Chinese elections should be more transparent.
“We have a fake election,” she said. “In public, they say they allow you to have an election, but in reality, they don’t. You can’t mention the shortcomings of officials. You can’t speak ill of political leaders.”
The Chinese news media have largely avoided discussing the elections, only publishing basic information about voting dates and preparations.
In Beijing, where more than 70 people ran independent campaigns this year, a dozen candidates appeared at the offices of the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress on Tuesday to file complaints, even while they acknowledged their protests would probably have little effect.
Mr. Gao, the architectural technician, said activists would continue to promote democracy and the rule of law in China, despite resistance from the central government.
He quoted Lu Xun, considered one of the greatest writers in modern Chinese history, whose works have been embraced by democracy advocates.
“Lu Xun once said, ‘The Earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made,’” Mr. Gao said. “As long as it is within a legal framework, we will keep trying to run for local People’s Congresses.”
In an apartment complex not far from Tiananmen Square, Mr. Zhang, the retiree running in local elections, said his neighbors had come to see him and his wife, Guo Shumei, 70, who was also running, as pariahs for deciding to take on the establishment.
They have called the party’s representatives out of touch and inaccessible, and they have accused the government of not doing enough to solve issues like overpopulation and pollution. The neighborhood that the couple was seeking to represent includes about 10,000 people packed into a few densely populated city blocks.
On the streets outside, posters put up by the government called on residents to “elect good representatives who are for the people.”
Ms. Guo said she planned to run again in 2021, assuming she was in good health, even if the authorities discouraged her. “If the police come again, I’ll tell them, ‘You ruined this year’s effort, but I’ll see you again in another five years.’”
Mr. Zhang and Ms. Guo spent Election Day at home, refusing to vote as a sign of protest.