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How hard is it for an ordinary Chinese citizen to get elected into the legislature?

Like many others who sought to run as independents in China’s county and district legislature elections this year, factory worker Liu Mingxue saw his candidacy rejected in the northwestern province of Gansu, even though he followed every procedure required by law.

Liu was also taken away by police on June 20 – county election day – for questioning about his assistant, and not released until 12 hours later.

Liu, 55, hoped to be elected so he could help more than 1,000 fellow workers at a local chemical factory lobby for better welfare, which the company’s bosses, two of whom won seats in the election, had refused.

His chief campaign assistant, Qu Mingxue, was arrested for sabotaging the election after he campaigned for Liu on social media.

“We were never optimistic about getting elected,” Liu said. “Usually it’s the designated candidates that win … but I was surprised they detained [Qu] on such a charge.”

The National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, has come under closer scrutiny than ever before after 45 of its members, all from Liaoning province, were sacked last month after the worst vote-rigging scandal in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Although seen by many as a rubber-stamp institution, the almost 3,000 seats in the NPC seats are still highly sought-after.

The scandal broke at a delicate time, with China conducting elections for lawmakers at the county and district level in an electoral process that will ultimately decide who makes it to the NPC.

While most NPC deputies implicated in the Liaoning scandal are from the business community, ordinary citizens trying to practise their constitutional rights find the system of rigid control impenetrable.

Liu had hoped to become a lawmaker for Yongjing county.

Mainlanders can only vote for lawmakers at county and district elections – with lawmakers at higher levels elected by the lawmakers one level down.

Liaoning vote-buying scandal points to rot in China’s system

Those living in rural villages can also elect their local government heads, while government heads at higher levels are elected by lawmakers at the same level. In many cases there is only one candidate for each position.

NPC members stand for re-election every five years, with elections for lower-level lawmakers beginning around two years ahead of each NPC election.

Despite the widespread criticism of the NPC, many aspiring independent candidates at the lowest level believe it remains the only viable way to push for changes without directly challenging the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

“It’s a very important path and almost the only path to build democracy,” said Xiong Wei, an independent scholar on China’s legal system. “Oppression of potential candidates is to be expected … but there’s still a lot that can be done within the current system.”

Xiong, who tried to stand in a district election in Beijing five years ago, said lawmakers at the county and district level were entitled to file challenges, propose the dismissal of low-level government officials and approve their nominations.

Hopes were high ahead of the county and district elections in 2011, when aspiring candidates including writers, scholars, university students and even petitioners tried to run.

Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, had been launched two years earlier and potential candidates, some with millions of online followers, used it in their campaigns.

However, no internet opinion leaders made it onto the final list of candidates. They were all screened out by election committees.

Behind the NPC vote-buying scandal: how Beijing went on the warpath after its preferred candidates lost

Xiong, who spoke for more than 20,000 migrant workers, or more than 90 per cent of the eligible voters in his constituency, was one of those rejected.

So was Qiao Mu, a communications professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, although his student campaigners continued to support him despite coming under pressure not to do so.

Such results were expected by Yao Lifa, who was removed from the list of candidates for a district election in Qianjiang, Hubei province, in 1998 but still managed to win a seat after persuading 1,706 voters to write his name on the ballot.

“Democratic elections are inconsistent with the current political system, where all cadres are decided by the party,” he said. “But I don’t think the trend towards free elections is reversible in the long term.”

Yao’s restrained optimism was echoed by Xiong, who recalled occasional cases where independent candidates had won seats in county or district elections.

“Even activists who led petitions in Henan could win. They are all people the government doesn’t like,” said Xiong, who has decided to stand for election again this year. “A single spark can start a prairie fire.”

One such winner in 2011 was Guo Huojia, a leading activist against illegal land grabs in Foshan, Guangdong province, who made it through the candidate screening and was elected a lawmaker in his district with close to 5,000 votes.

The reality for most independents is not as encouraging, however. Liu’s campaign assistant was released in late July, one month after the election, when the police dropped the charge against him. A disheartened Liu said he now lacked the energy to stand for election again.

A year after free election, grass-roots democracy in Wukan withers

Many opinion leaders who ran active campaigns five years ago have remained largely silent during the new round of elections. Critical writers such as Li Chengpeng and Xia Shang, who relied heavily on their Weibo accounts to campaign, have had their accounts deleted in the interim.

Liang Shuxin, a prominent charity volunteer who aimed to “speak for the less well-off”, did not make the candidate list five years ago, either. Even though he was a Communist Party member with mild political opinions, Liang was still seen as a troublemaker.

Liang said all of his referees came under pressure from the authorities and many quit supporting him.

“It’s impossible for me to run this year,” Liang wrote on his verified social media account in June. “I have a family now and I’m not as passionate and fearless as I was.”