24 Hour Party People

Why independent political parties in China don't last long.


Among the decorative elements of China’s constitution is the right to freedom of speech and assembly — a fact that Wang Zheng is counting on as she launches her new political party, but which will likely end up foiling her. On Nov. 6, supporters of imprisoned Chinese politician Bo Xilai formed the Zhi Xian party, which means "The Constitution is the Supreme Authority." According to Reuters, which broke the story, Wang, an associate professor of international trade at the relatively obscure Beijing Institute of Economics and Management, co-founded the party — its other organizers haven’t publicized their involvement. She said the party would call for upholding China’s constitution, a document ratified in 1982 and mostly ignored since. To add to its complications, the party named Bo, who is serving a life sentence for bribery, corruption, and abuse of power, as "Chairman for life." (It’s unknown whether Bo accepted the title.)

Wang looks to be following a long line of unfortunate Chinese advocates who took their constitutional rights at face value. The most prominent were those associated with the China Democracy Party (CDP), a group of activists who in the late 1990s aimed to lay the groundwork for "direct elections and the formation of a multiparty system," according to the NGO Human Rights in China. Xu Wenli, one of the co-founders, was sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1998 and exiled to the United States in 2002. (In a sign of the short shelf life of Chinese dissidents, the BBC called Xu the "Godfather of Dissent" in 1998. He is almost entirely unknown today.)

China pretends to allow dissenting parties. The ruling Communist Party sanctions and controls eight other political parties, most of which were coopted from opposition movements that existed before the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China. Many of them, including the China Democratic League and the China Association for the Promotion of Democracy, have names that make them sound like dissenting parties, but they exist to buttress Communist Party rule. China Radio International, a radio propaganda station, describes them as "not opposition parties, but parties participating in the discussion and administration of State affairs." Their closest U.S. analogue is probably the White House florist.

CDP was the first time "in the history of the People’s Republic of China that anyone had dared to form and register an independent party," journalist Zha Jianying wrote in the New Yorker in 2007. Her brother, Zha Jianguo, helped form the CDP, and was then serving a nine year sentence for "subverting the state." Jianying would visit him often, and discuss world events, his health, and even — albeit carefully — Chinese politics. One thing she "never had the heart to bring up" was the irrelevance of Zha’s protest. "The mainland Chinese press didn’t report the 1999 C.D.P. roundup, so few people in China ever knew what had happened," she wrote. "After almost eight years of incarceration, Jianguo is unrepentant, resolute, and forgotten." (Released from prison in 2008, a photo of him in a Sept. 2013 interview about Bo with the U.S. government broadcaster Voice of America shows a bald man in a white tank top, seemingly resolute, likely unrepentant, and still mostly forgotten.)

More sartorially conscious, but no less quixotic is model Cheng Yuting, who in October 2011 at the age of 21 announced her independent candidacy for Chaoyang People’s Congress, the local government of a wealthy district in Beijing. Like Wang, Cheng exercised her constitutional right, bestowed on all Chinese citizens above the age of 18, to "stand for election." Very few independent candidates have run for office across China, and even fewer win. Cheng was almost certainly the first model to try — "I want to repay the community" and "explore the route to democracy while young," she wrote on her microblog. "I am very proud of my bravery. Trying hard never leads to failure."

On a trip that month the local office to register, Cheng met a functionary she described as the most "abominable" person she has ever seen in her life. "I didn’t realize the lowest level of government would be such hooligans," she wrote, mentioning the "hundred obstructions" they threw in her way, like claiming that instead of 11 supporters she only had nine, one less than required. Although the local government didn’t allow her to stand for office, her modeling career didn’t seem to suffer because of her political activism — in July of this year, she appeared on a major Chinese variety show.

Things were worse for Liu Ping, an unemployed former steel-mill worker from the impoverished province of Jiangxi, who tried to run for district elections in 2011 and 2012. Dissidents in more remote regions of China, further away from foreign media and the more liberal elements of domestic media, whose cases more often get ignored by more moderate aspects of the party-state, tend to fare worse than those in the capital or big cities. Election workers prevented her from claiming the forms needed to register; she was later reportedly beaten when she tried to take her case to Beijing. "There are a lot of informal ways for those who are problematic to be dealt with," says Kerry Brown, author of Ballot Box China: Grassroots Democracy in the Final Major One-Party State.

In late October 2013, Liu faced trial with two other activists for their participation in the most recently suppressed political organization, the New Citizens Movement. Associated with the now-imprisoned activist Xu Zhiyong, it’s not technically a political party but rather a "loose network of legal advocates, human rights campaigners and disgruntled citizens that began to coalesce into a more coordinated effort" in 2012, according to the New York Times. The trial, the results of which have not yet been released, is seen as a test case for how much dissent Chinese President Xi Jinping is willing to broker. The answer, both for Liu and Wang’s "The Constitution is the Supreme Authority" party, probably won’t be heartening.

Ever the optimist, Wang stressed that, like China’s eight other legal political parties, she is working within the system. "This is not illegal under Chinese law. It is legal and reasonable," Wang told Reuters. But that may not be enough to keep her out of prison.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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