MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
In China, an electoral battle is being played out over Twitter or at least over its Chinese equivalent, Weibo. Today, 200 million Chinese are microblogging. And with local elections approaching, a record number are using this platform to run campaigns as independent candidates. As NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, the official reaction has been swift and in many cases forceful.
LOUISA LIM: Liu Ping has her phone tapped. She's followed places by men in black cars. Her electricity was cut off. And she was detained and held incommunicado in a hotel for four days. Her crime? Trying to run for election to the local People's Congress in her hometown Xinyu, in Jiangxi province. Non-Communist Party members are allowed to stand, but she has a record of labor activism after being laid off by a state-run steel factory. At first, no one would even tell her where to pick up the nomination form. She did manage to submit one but in vain.
LIU PING: (Through Translator) When the preliminary candidates were announced, my name was illegally kicked off the list. They told me, it's an election under the leadership of the Communist Party, not an election in the United States.
LIM: When she asked the election office why she hadn't been allowed to stand, she says she was told: You want to be a people's deputy? You should be a prostitute. She cried on the way home, but she still wanted to stand, this time as a write-in candidate whose name voters write on the ballot themselves.
She used Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, to publicize her candidacy and the tactics used against her. Five days before the election, police turned off her electricity. Two days later, they raided her house. The next day, she says, security officials took her to a hotel, confiscated her phone and held her there until the poll was over.
PING: (Through Translator) The power of a single person is insignificant because we have been deceived for so long, but if other people dare to stand up, a day will come when we will see hope.
LIM: Her experience unleashed a wave of candidacies with more than 100 people announcing campaigns on Weibo. Some, like this candidate, Xu Yan, upload campaign videos online.
There have been signals the government will not tolerate candidates outside its control. One unnamed official told the People's Daily there was no legal basis for independent candidates.
Yao Bo, for one, is undeterred by this. He's a writer, better known by his Weibo handle, Wuyuesanren. He wants to change the system from within.
YAO BO: (Through Translator) The process of democratizing China needs to take one step forward. We do not want a revolution again, so there must be something that can replace revolution.
LIM: Yao Bo says he feels protected by the 237,000 followers to his microblog. He sees the microblog as a soapbox and a way of sourcing campaign help.
BO: (Through Translator) I can find people who will nominate me online. I can find lawyers, volunteers, people who will design my election material, people who will print it and people who will canvas for me.
LIM: He hasn't been harassed so far. He's standing in Beijing and he believes the authorities here have to play it by the book.
Elsewhere, it's a different picture. Sheng Hong, a liberal intellectual from the Unirule Institute of Economics, fears the central government has lost control of local authorities.
SHENG HONG: (Through Translator) Local officials are increasingly lacking in restraint. They abuse their powers and violate citizens' rights and the central government seems to do nothing to restrain them.
LIM: Nonetheless, the woman who sparked this, Liu Ping, believes in her case, the strategy of crushing her candidacy has backfired.
PING: (Through Translator) They failed and they failed badly. Excluding me from the election worked in my favor. A single spark can start a prairie fire and the more they persecute me, the more resistance there will be.
LIM: But, as yet, none of the Weibo candidates have been elected. Even if they were to be, their room for maneuver would be limited. But the fact that their fate is a hot topic online shows a growing thirst for public participation and politics.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
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