XiaoJin has a very special name: on the whole Chinese internet, no one has the same combination of first and family names. For that reason, his parents have developed a habit of looking for his name online every two or three days. The parents are acting out of fear, they’re afraid that he will get involved in something worrying.
XiaoJin wants to take part in the elections to the National People’s Congress (NPC); his parents discovered that on one of these searches. They discovered his electoral program online. He published his electoral program on “renren” (the Chinese facebook) while still studying at university. The program shows maturity, but also generosity: “Nowadays, social hostility is brewing, a feeling of despair, a belief that ‘reform is dead’ is spreading in the hearts of many people, so why do we stand for election as NPC Deputies? Because we have no other choice, because it is our responsibility. Some people say, what change will you make if you are elected as an NPC representative? I say, what we will change is people’s hearts. Today, we’re not seeking to be elected, we’re seeking expression, we do not seek to become the main character in the play, but at least to successfully play the clown… yes, I believe there will be difficulties and obstacles, but I also believe that there will be flowers and clapping of hands. We have no reason to be pessimistic, and we should not be pessimistic: we must not avoid our responsibility.”
The article had almost 3000 views, and 1200 shares. Comments all came from university students of the same age. One half were saying: “bring it on!” “you rule!”. The other half dampened his enthusiasm, they said he was dreaming and there has never been a precedent of political power in the votes.
Xiaojin is one of those less stable students in key universities, he’s often on twitter, he knows the party, and his reading and writing often echoes to the Grand Narrative of the Chinese Republic – he has long left behind the shouting stage of youthful anger. He frequently posts status updates on renren, and has started to influence the opinion of some other university students. At the start of this year, he decided that the period of writing articles to save the country was over, he was no longer satisfied with publishing polemical essays, but it was time for action. This happened in May this year. In the affair of Jiangxi worker Liu Ping running as NPC candidate, which caused waves, he and a few other twenty-something formed a “citizen observation group” and went as onlookers; they were detained for a few days, and then released politely, as if they were runaway children.
Xiao Jin, after this first failed attempt, would still not give up the idea. This year, because many independent candidates appeared on weibo, the election of deputies to the NPC became very lively, and the media called it “Year One of Chinese citizen’s election”, and even the onlookers got infected with the excitement of “the time has come”. But still, Xiao Jin is very clear, this excitement is just an illusion.
It’s a case of deceptive memory: eight years go, for the NPC election, people had the same level of enthusiasm. At that time, Tsinghua undergraduates had published their campaign manifesto on BBS: “We are still on the road／history takes no quiet spectators, it always move in a hurry, and does not stop for anyone’s nostalgic feeling／mankind’s progress in political civilisation hasn’t stopped for a moment, it doesn’t wait for anyone, and is continously moving forward……／We are still on the road／Our election is moving towards a wider and wider road of light／Let our representatives respond to the will of voters／We are still on the road……”
That year, according to incomplete statistics, seven students from Beijing Universities have announced that they will participate in the NPC’s election in Haidian District.
… Xiao Jin knew he was almost sure to fail, but he was willing to try. He said: “the Chinese electoral system makes college students the most suitable group. of candidates”
Undergraduates have two advantages when standing for election as deputies to the NPC. The first is the use of online network. In the United States and even in Taiwan, the campaign ads have big grassroots support, and advertising has a very effective influence on the number of votes in the actual election process. But for elections in Mainland China, even though you publish videos on the web or posters on the street, the people who see them are not necessarily the constituents of your electoral district, so the publicity loses efficacy.
However, college students have “renren” accounts to connect with classmates emotionally, and also school BBS. News spread quickly in this relatively closed space as well as sharing and discussion, the relationship between the campaigning college students and their constituents are simply like a direct face to face. Therefore, election campaigns can easily have an effect.
The second advantage is the possibility to easily do direct canvassing. For elections, you can register in your work unit, or you can register at your place of residence. For the sake of convenience of it, most people prefer to register in their work unit.
Some of the candidates, when canvassing for their campaign, would like to speak directly to voters, so they knock on every door in the residence, but either the people don’t come out, or if they finally manage to get a door open, the people there often don’t belong to the right work unit, and are not their constituent. But at university, that kind of “floor sweep” is easy and efficient. The candidates or their team can knock on the doors of the dormitory one by one, or step into the study rooms, and have universal access to their electoral platform to gain support or signatures, 如草船借箭。That “floor sweep” way of canvassing evokes the student council elections, but it is most like the recruitment into student societies at the start of a new semester.
The advantage of college students when they run for election is the contained environment, the downside is also the contained environment. Any movement will be magnified rapidly, and even a single spark can burn all the way up to the Dean’s office. Xiao Jin has been warned by his school; meanwhile, his parents have been frightened to see him run for election and tried to stop him.
Shortly after the declaration of his candidacy, Xiao Jin wrote a letter stating: “I promise not to seek joint recommendation from the masses to become a candidate and participate in the elections to the NPC for Haidian district.” Xiao Jin’s wording is subtle, and there is a hidden message he can’t make promises for things he doesn’t see, as he smartly hints: he only promises that he will not personally go canvassing, but if other people recommend him and do the planning for him, he may get back on the road to the election.
Xiao Ye from Guangzhou is also running in the election. He is still a college student, and wear the label of “activist citizen”.
In early August, he started collecting signatures on the joint recommendation forms, and he soon collected 1000 signatures. Student Xiao Ye, in an interview with Guangzhou reporter Chen Siyue, declared: “I’ve collected 1000 signatures, and I’ve surveyed 50 people, of these there may be one person who does not support me. One third of them may think that this is not a matter of significance, but you should try it; one third think this is a matter of high importance, but you’ve got no way to succeed… students will agree to support you, no matter what school they attend.”
Mr He Zhaowu used to speak about the “school” mindset. From primary school to university, a quantitative analysis of students’ political tendencies looked something like this: ten percent are very involved, they are the “professional households”, political activists, what the guomingdang called “career students”; about ten to twenty percent are supporting the first; roughly one half are vaguely supportive, and happy to follow; about ten percent only care about their study; and ten percent just oppose everything. —That would just after liberation, and at first sight, there is no big difference with the situation today.
The reason Xieo Ye got so many votes had probably to do with the pragmatism of his programme, and how it addressed the concerns of other students. Based on his preliminary investigation, his election agenda included: regular updates and maintainance of the library computers, clean up the university river, improve the security of bike parkings and dormitories, improve the quality of food in the canteen, etc. This program evokes the spirit and contents of a School logistics congress meeting, or like the campaign rhetoric of someone running for class leader. Although it did not involved any grand ideology, the school was still very alert, it asked for numerous interviews, and in the end, his name was not on the list of selected candidates.
Xiao Ye finally completed the procedures, and still stood for election outside of the formal candidates as an “other” candidate, and finally got 800 vites – although not enough to be elected, still the highest number of votes among university students this year. Xiao Ye, although he was not elected, was still concerned about the election. He discovered that, in the Guangzhou elections, a large number of college students voted for Laughing Gor (a character in the Hong Kong drama Sniper Academy (学警狙击）or Lu Fei (the protagonist of the animation movie One piece (海贼王). Guangzhou university even had to re-organise the election, because there were too many votes for Laughing Gor.
Xiao Ye would rather treat it as a silent protest than blame his failure on the cynicism and political apathy of college students, he said:” how can we vote for candidates when we barely know them? Maybe many student thought that they would rather play with the system than have the system play with them.”
Xiao Wu from Hubei has been updating his election campaign.
Xiao Wu felt very passionate seeing independent candidates run for election on weibo. He was also worried about them suffering limitation and blame. He felt that this road was very difficult to walk along, because there were too few people to walk with, therefore he decided to join the march.
When Xiao Wu decided to run for election, he felt determined and excited but also disturbed and confused: he didn’t know from which school institution he could get 10 people to sign a letter of recommendation, how to call for help, how to print the poster. He didn’t even know how to introduce himself on the poster. When the formal election date was less than a month away, he learnt all of that within a very short period of time, from how to ask for a recommendation form to posting voting boards on the school building. When he finally had a small success and victory, he received a text message from a student in the afternoon, and the message said: “Cut it off! I don’t want to support you, do you believe that because you’re a student you can represent us students? That’s too one-sided! You’re just having a bit of fun, you’re acting on a whim, I’m just ignoring you, and I believe most people will just laugh it off. You just can’t appeal to us. Humph!”
Xiao Wu replied: “you don’t understand the trouble, pressure and anxiety of running for the election over twenty days. You can choose not to support me, but please do not say I’m just having a bit of fun.”
As was expected, Xiao Wu’s name didn’t show up on the official list of candidates, just like Xiao Ye, stood for election outside of the formal candidates as an “other” candidate.On voting day, he stayed on the scene all day, he wrote his name solemnly, which looked a bit ridiculous in the perfunctory and disorderly scene. Other students were playing and making fun of each other, no one treated it seriously, and most of them wrote a name arbitrarily and left. The voting process finished hurriedly, and when he looked at the ballot box being taken away, Xiao Wu just felt that this confusion was a mockery to him. All his efforts and nobility ended in a joke, and he said he really wanted to cry.
It was sure that Xiao Wu would not be elected. He wrote a blog post after getting the election result, no longer talking about civil society or “the road is made as you walk”. Instead he said we need to return to our own lives, to help others if we can, otherwise just study hard and live our lives, and that’s enough. In the last sentence of the article he wrote:“Treat your life calmly, take an unbiased look at this age of vanity”.
The college students who took part in the NPC election seem to be living back in the 1980s. They always talk about the grand occasion of the People’s Congress elections among Beijing Universities in 1980, whenstudents built a public space without foundation; everyone had access to the podium, people gave speech in the Triangle every day.
But Xiao Jin added, we shouldn’t blame the political apathy of today’s college students, we should compare the life of the two generation of the college students, now they have endless dramas to watch, nonstop spam, how will they think about things that are irrelevant to them? Maybe after they grow up, enter society, and hit the wall, then they will be slightly different.
While the college students who run for the election may consider themselves as the first self-aware group, they still felt to week to wake up others. Xiao Jin said, many years later he may write a memoir in Xu Zhiyuan’s structure, naming it “Those suffering young people who took part in the NPC’s election”.
Jiang Fangzhou’s “Ninth Grade” column in 《信睿》magazine, November 2011.
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