He presented himself as a candidate of the people, a folksy problem-solver who would rid garbage-strewn streets of dog waste and put an end to illegal parking. But in the eyes of the authorities, Zhang Shangen, 73, a candidate in local elections in Beijing on Tuesday, was a menace seeking to undermine the Communist Party. The Chinese government blocked Mr. Zhang’s campaign at every turn, sending police officers to intimidate him and his supporters. On the eve of a major rally last month, Mr. Zhang said, the authorities whisked him to a city more than 800 miles away. “The government manipulates everything,” he said in an interview at his home in Beijing on Tuesday. “They are scared people will wake up to reality.” Tuesday was Election Day in Beijing, with thousands of seats for party-run local congresses up for grabs. Outside community centers and police stations, officials urged people to “treasure democratic rights” and “cast your sacred and solemn ballot.” But before the elections, there were no debates, town hall-style forums, social media wars or other hallmarks of participatory democracy.
Instead, the government responded with bluster and bullying, detaining activists and confiscating campaign materials. President Xi Jinping, who has vigorously blocked threats to the Communist Party’s dominance since coming to power in 2012, has taken a harsh stance against advocates for democracy and has sought to limit Western influences.
For the small but spirited band of activists who had been working for years to shake the status quo, the election results were disheartening, to say the least. “There is no way I can be elected,” said Gao Changqi, 66, a retired architectural technician who ran in the elections in Beijing, adding that he had been trailed by the police. “The system won’t let it happen.”
Despite the Communist Party’s monopoly on power in China and its strenuous efforts to limit dissent, the government has permitted elections at the local level for decades, eager to show to the world that China, too, has democracy.