It’s election day for the local People’s Congress, which comes every five years. It’s my students’ first time voting. The university and its parts (like publishing houses) get a single seat. The Party preselects two candidates to run, one of whom will win. These appointees ‘ran’ (both of them university administrators), as usual. But remarkably, two BFSU English department professors (one retired), ran as upstart independents!
The younger of the two used social media heavily. These radical and daring campaigns thrilled and inspired students and (more quietly) faculty. Their campaigns held a sense of potential, challenge, daring and promise. For a few weeks, campus email inboxes filled with pledges to do right by voters, and the braver students stepped up to volunteer.
The upstarts also angered the Party powers at school, a sort of shadow administration that controls things. Some students were quietly advised to stop their involvement.
Election Day arrived, coinciding with America’s. Police were everywhere today, including outside the English department (!!) checking IDs, setting up barriers and funneling pedestrians away from the gym/theater where voting was only permitted at each person’s preappointed time.
Security guards were in the dorms listening to students’ convesations, my class told me. At this, they were incredulous. Anonymously attack emails circulated against the upstarts, they told me, as did attack Tweets and Facebook posts. The man running as an independent (an apparently rascally and charismatic political scientist I’ve never met), was called, variously, a dangerous gossip, a prop of foreign activists, a perpetrator of sexual harrassment. One student read a post that warned, ominously, ‘If you care about him, don’t vote for him.’
The other upstart candidate, a retiree (forced out, I was told) nearing 80, daughter of a nationally known writer of the 1920s, is beloved by many of my students. Her supporters were a bit upset the younger challenger was trying to upstage her. (Some of them also said they suspect those sexual harrassment accusations might be true.)
The whole experience, no question, upset my students today, because — I believe — they are convinced they deserve better. They were upset at the possibility fraud might steal victory from one or the other. They were upset infighting had divided the ‘democratic opposition,’ if that’s what you call them. They were upset the two were poised to split the opposition vote, and lose. They were upset thinking the younger candidate would be fired in the end, and maybe flee to Hong Kong. One kid shook his head at how much it was like “1984,” and how absurd–to be living, for a moment, a dystopic fiction. Yet what choice was there, he said morosely. If the upstarts won, it would open a floodgate that couldn’t be held back elsewhere.
Had they really believed that was possible?
Yes. The old lady had won once before, years ago, slipped between the cracks. Young people admired the quixotic political scientist, testing China, demonstrating what a real election could look like. Before today, these two inspired at least a bit of hope. But Election Day wasn’t upbeat at all.
They don’t just want an exercise in which they vote, for naught, for their chosen candidate. Against the odds, contrary to the expectations we have in the U.S. of how China does things, they expect to be able to select their representative.
The police presence, impossible to ignore, suggests what they’re up against.