All around Liu Huizhen’s makeshift house, clusters of men lurked and smoked on a recent day, suspiciously eyeing passersby. Dozens of uniformed police waited in reserve, ready in case of trouble, while a thuggish man stood in the middle of the road with arms defiantly folded, preventing cars from passing. Liu, a 45-year-old farmer’s wife, appears to have the Communist Party worried, here in the village of Gaodiansan on the outskirts of Beijing. She wants to exercise her constitutional right to stand in local elections due to be held in the capital on Nov. 15, and about a dozen supporters had arrived to help her begin her campaign. They were to be blocked by a decisive show of force. “Some people think I am a troublemaker,” she said. “They think this is the government’s decision and I won’t win in the end. But I am not afraid. I have the right to participate in this election. I didn’t do anything illegal.”
Between August and December, China is holding staggered local elections across the country — an exercise in “grass-roots democracy” on a daunting scale. The Communist Party says “all power in China belongs to the people,” and this is the people’s every-five-year chance to express their wishes through the ballot box.
Yet reading China’s closely controlled state media, you would barely know the elections were happening, with news confined to brief announcements of voting days in different counties and assurances that officials are ready. It is as far removed as one can imagine from the hoopla of the U.S. presidential race.
“Voters aren’t enthusiastic, and it would be useless for state media to publicize it,” said Fang Ning, an expert on political reforms at the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.