Last week, residents in Beijing and Shanghai cast their votes for the local people’s representatives who then indirectly elect the top officials of the country, including its president.

The nationwide election for representatives in local People’s Congresses is held every five years. It is the only direct election in China. About 2.5 million representatives – or deputies – will be elected into county and township levels of people’s congresses by about 900 million voters this year, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

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Xi Jinping casts his vote. Photo: Screenshot/CCTV.

State media covered the election in 2016 by reporting on basic information such as locations of the voting stations, dates and turnout numbers, and the officials who cast their ballots – including President Xi Jinping, who voted for himself last Tuesday.

Here’s how China’s pyramid system works: Delegates to county, township and urban district-level congresses are directly elected, they in turn elect the representatives at people’s congresses the next level up, and so on to the top – the National People’s Congress.

But even after candidates are elected to the National People’s Congress, the body has limited power. Critics say that the legislature merely serves as a rubber stamp for Xi and the Communist Party.


Theoretically, the local people’s representatives are directly elected by the people. All Chinese citizens 18 years and older have the right to vote and stand for election. The only ones exempt are those who have been stripped of their political rights by a court, according to Article 34 of the constitution.

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A polling station in Beijing. Photo: He Depu.

Though in reality, candidates must first pass through a process that is heavily stacked against independent contenders before their names can be on the ballot.

Candidates must be nominated by ten voters, a registered organisation, the Communist Party, or one of the other eight government-sanctioned non-Communist parties. Independent candidates are those not nominated by a party or an official organisation.

Though it may sound simple to get ten nominations from friends and neighbours, independent candidates run into difficulty even at this early stage. Ye Jinghuan, an independent candidate who has run several times without success, told HKFP why she and a group of other independent candidates who are already known to authorities do not try to get individual nominations anymore.

“If you find ten voters to nominate you as a candidate, those ten voters will have trouble. They will be suspended from work, or they will be questioned by authorities, among other things. So we can’t make trouble for them,” she said. 

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Ye Yinghuan and her group of independent candidates. Photos: China Change/Weiquanwang.

Instead, Ye Jinghuan’s group of 18 people’s representative hopefuls asked their constituents to write the names of the independent candidates they support on their ballots, saying it was safer for them that way.

After nominations are submitted, election committees controlled by the CPC – made up of members of the standing committees of the people’s congress at the corresponding level – will gather the list of candidates, and pass it to the electoral groups made up of local voters of each district to discuss and confirm the final list of candidates. These electoral groups make the final decision about which candidates are allowed to be on the ballot.

Ye said it is impossible for the 18 independent candidates in the group she organises to be on the final list of candidates. He Depu, who has run for election multiple times as an independent candidate, told HKFP that the leaders of the electoral groups are basically people that the authorities appointed or approved.

“They are all people who support the Communist Party,” he said. The leaders hold “democratic consultations,” which are organised by the election committees and which regular voters are excluded from. At these meetings, they pick the official candidates and eliminate the independent candidates, he said.

Almost all the 21,765 candidates on ballots in Beijing this year came from the ruling party, with a token few from China’s eight other official parties, reported Agence France-Presse.

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Independent candidates in Beijing. Photo: He Depu.

Independent candidates

Apart from procedural hurdles, independent candidates face surveillance, harassment and even detention by the authorities. This is how authorities prevent candidates from attending rallies, being interviewed by journalists, and other campaigning activities.

But all this is to stop independent candidates from being elected as deputies who are limited to handling only local, grassroots issues, said Yaxue Cao, the founder and editor of China Change, a US-based website advocating increased democracy.

“Even if all of these independent candidates are elected, it’s still a very teeny teeny number. And the total number at the district level, we’re talking about millions of those representatives. So it’s like a drop in the ocean. And also the representatives on that level have absolutely no power whatsoever,” she said.

He Depu was one of about 70 independent candidates in Beijing this year – a record number, according to Cao. Before the city’s residents cast their votes, a group of 58 independent candidates, of which He is a part, sent out a list of independent candidates in each district, pledging that they would post their phone numbers in public places in each district for voters to contact them.

Even though it is nearly impossible for independent candidates to be elected, He says the elections are still important.

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He Depu and a letter asking people to vote for him. Photos: He Depu.

He said a big problem is that the people don’t know who their representatives are or what they do, and have no way of contacting them. “Because the representatives are directly elected, they must be supervised by the people… And only when voters can contact them directly can they supervise their work.”

Despite the obstacles, independent candidates still take the race very seriously. Cao said that some candidates in Beijing started preparing for the election a couple of years ago, and even organised training sessions for themselves. Cao says these elections are a barometer of China’s democratic progress, if any.

“If China has a fake election, the world has to know,” said Cao. Other countries often cite the grassroots elections as evidence that China is moving towards democracy, which is inaccurate based on the fact that the election system hasn’t improved in 35 years, she said.

“Very simple. If they allow this, there will be no stopping.”

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.