BEIJING — China's ruling Communist Party will face a challenge in 2012 from a record number of independent candidates running in local elections without the party's direct approval.
In the past few months, more than 100 Chinese citizens have informally announced their candidacies for local committee seats through the microblog site Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
"My experience with media lets me make use of all different means," said Yao Bo, a newspaper columnist and well-known Internet commentator who is running as an independent candidate in Beijing's Changping district.
"I know a lot of people, and I can tell a lot of people. [The government] can try to silence me, but then the country will know," Mr. Yao, better known in China by his blog name Wuyuesanren, told The Washington Times.
The movement has been so strong that the state-run Xinhua News Agency declared at the beginning of June that "independent candidates" are not recognized by Chinese law. It added that all candidates must clear a series of procedures to run for office.
However, analysts say the declaration did not ban all independent candidates from office. It certainly has not deterred independent candidates from continuing their campaigns on Weibo, in some cases garnering thousands of followers.
Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping introduced grass-roots elections in 1978 as an experiment in direct democracy.
Held at least every five years, the elections continue to be the only direct link between the Chinese people and their government.
The next round will be held in various districts from July through December next year.
The Chinese Constitution guarantees all citizens 18 or older the right to vote and run in the county- and township-level elections.
In practice, however, the process is tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Most of the time, only party-approved candidates get onto the ballots.
"The biggest obstacle is the procedure," said Mr. Yao. "If you don't have confirmation, it's easy for the government to ... just bump off the ones they don't like [from the ballots]."
The confirmation process is complicated, but it basically requires potential candidates to get the support of at least 10 qualified voters. However, the government can rule candidates or any of their supporters unqualified and refuse to put them on the ballot.
In the past, independent candidates have met the procedural requirements and won seats in local governments. However, those candidates have had difficulty after being elected.
One independent, Yao Lifa, won a local election in 1998, but failed to win election again in 2003. He said he has been harassed by authorities ever since.
Liu Ping, a laid-off worker from Jiangxi province campaigning for retirement rights, announced her candidacy as an independent on Weibo and soon had more than 30,000 followers. By May, the local communist government had branded her an enemy of the state, prevented her from campaigning in public, detained her and searched her house.
Although the government officially removed her from the candidate list, Liu Ping continues to post on Weibo, saying she will "fight till the end."
However, not all Chinese political analysts view independent candidates as a threat.
Wang Zhanyang, a professor at the Central Institute of Socialism, urged Chinese authorities to treat independent candidates "as factors promoting social stability."
"As a matter of fact, a society becomes stable only when it grows duly active and vibrant," Mr. Wang wrote this month in the China-U.S. Focus magazine, published by the private China-United States Exchange Foundation in Hong Kong.
Undeterred by past failures, independent candidates have run their campaigns primarily by using social media, which gets out messages effectively but makes them hard to track.
Mr. Yao said that despite the right guaranteed by the constitution, most Chinese citizens have never seen a ballot because the government has never told them they could vote.
He said he hopes his campaign will get the word out to everybody.
"The rights are theirs," he said, "and no one can take them."