China’s New Independents Tap Social Media to Challenge Communist Party (Updated)

The Christian Science Monitor reports on a group of netizens who have taken to microblogs and other social media to announce their candidacy for local office:

Harnessing the mobilizing power of social networking websites for the first time and attracting unprecedented attention to themselves, these candidates for local Peoples’ Congresses are posing a dilemma for the government.

“There appears to be some uncertainty and debate at the upper echelons [of government] about how to deal with this,” says Russell Leigh Moses, author of an upcoming book on the changing nature of power in China.

Some of those putting themselves forward as candidates, such as popular blogger Li Chengpeng, seem likely to be thorns in the authorities’ side. “You will never know the benefit of standing up if you always stay on your knees,” Mr. Li declared in a combative campaign statement he sent out to his 2 million followers on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog.

Others seem to be simply asking for a chance to participate in a system that has almost always excluded citizens who are not members of the Communist party. “I want public opinion to be translated into public policy,” says Xu Yan, a young advertising executive in the eastern city of Hangzhou, explaining why he is hoping to be a candidate in his local later this year.

Update: The China Media Project writes about the implications of this movement:

The story really began back in late April, when a laid-off female worker named Liu Ping (刘萍) announced her candidacy for a district people’s congress in Jiangxi’s Xinyu City (新馀). Liu Ping told the BBC (Chinese) that she had been warned by local police, who said campaigning for office was against the law. Liu’s case drew the attention of a number of influential scholars and journalists, including Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor and CMP fellow Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), who issued appeals through their own microblogs to draw broader support for Liu and make the public more aware of their political rights. The second wave of interest in local people’s congress elections came when Li Chengpeng (李承鹏), a prominent Chinese author, announced his plans in late May to take part in elections in Chengdu.

This is a fascinating story about growing interest in political participation in China, about real engagement, and about how social media in particular are galvanizing participation to the extent it is possible under the current political system. Unfortunately, this issue has gotten virtually no attention outside China. Why? The notable exception is a piece by Calum McCleod in USA Today, in which he notes that Li Chengpeng’s candidacy has received backing from celebrity blogger Han Han and film director Feng Xiaogang.

No, this is not a political seismic shift, but it is far less ethereal than, for example, the so-called Jasmine protests in China were back in February. And I hope everyone can agree that the story is far more relevant to readers anywhere than the story of a Chinese teen who sold his kidney for an iPad.

June 8, 2011, 12:51 PM
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