Fourteen activists who planned to participate in the Beijing provincial assembly election have withdrawn four days ahead of the November 5 vote, saying their personal safety is at risk.
Many of the activists are related to people arrested in a July 9, 2015, purge. Authorities arrested more than 300 lawyers and activists in what has become known as the 709 Crackdown.
The 14 activists declared their candidacies on Oct. 15 only to issue a joint statement on Nov. 1 saying that out of consideration of freedom and personal safety, all 14 decided to withdraw from the race.
Wang Qiaoling, whose husband, lawyer Li Heping was arrested in the 709 crackdown, sent the statement via Twitter. It stated that 10 of the candidates had been placed under strict government supervision since declaring. Some were taken to the police station to “drink tea,” a tactic used by Chinese secret police to intimidate dissidents. Some were constrained to their neighborhoods.
The provincial assembly focuses on street-level functions, such as establishing local policies and approving local budgets and expenses.
According to the statement, the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau set up a special case team and “[the candidates] will know the result in two months.”
To become a formal candidate, a hopeful must pass a political screening process. According to an article in China Daily by the state-owned Xinhua News Agency, a citizen “must first register and win confirmation of his or her qualifications for lawmaker candidacy. Then receive a nomination as ‘deputy candidate’ by political parties, social organizations, or 10 or more voters in one constituency.”
The article also said, “There is no such a thing as an ‘independent candidate,’ as it's not recognized by law.”
Wang Qiaoling told VOA Mandarin that “it’s not convenient” for her to say anything beyond the statement.
When asked whether she’s under pressure to refrain from making further comments, she answered “definitely yes.”
VOA Mandarin contacted one of the candidates, Ye Jinghuan, who replied to say because authorities are monitoring her phone, she takes calls only from close relatives.
VOA Mandarin contacted her sister, Ye Jingchun, who is also a rights activist. She said the 14 candidates had no choice but to withdraw.
“There is also pressure from their relatives and friends,” she told VOA Mandarin. “The authorities usually talk to those around you to put pressure on you, making it hard to bear the mental burden.”
Ye Jingchun, who participated in the 2011 and 2016 Beijing provincial assembly elections as an independent candidate, said this time there’s even more pressure from the authorities.
She said in 2011 and 2016, independent candidates would receive police attention only for their campaign activities. “But this year, everyone is placed under surveillance. They are no longer free to take a call from outside of the country. ... Some were forced to ‘travel,’ some were forced to stay home. I think it will last until Nov. 5, the election day,” she told VOA Mandarin. Authorities employ forced chaperoned travel to send dissidents away from events of domestic or international importance.
Ye Jingcho endorsed the high-profile announcement the 14 candidates used to declare their candidacies and then withdraw. “So, when you quit, people understand why,” she said.
Local elections will be held in the Beijing municipal area on Nov. 5 to select about 5,000 district People’s Congress representatives and more than 11,000 township People’s Congress representatives.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said at a central conference focused on work related to people's congresses held on Oct. 13-14 that "Democracy, a shared value of humanity, is a key tenet unswervingly upheld by the CPC and the Chinese people.”
The local level elections are the only ones in China that use a direct election system, where candidates who win a majority of votes will be elected as local representatives.
"We all know the chances of being elected are very small,” Ye said, “but even if I didn’t win, my neighbors, my friends get to know a little bit more about the meaning of voting, so I have no complaints or regrets.”