Chinese Elders Call for Greater Press Freedom Before Communist Party Meets

Twenty-three retired Chinese Communist Party officials, led by Mao Zedong’s former secretary, challenged the government to improve press freedom days before meeting to discuss the nation’s new leadership.

The group, drawn from the military, state media and academia, accused “invisible black hands” of suppressing a speech last month in which Premier Wen Jiabao called for greater political openness to match the country’s economic gains. The open letter by party elders including Li Rui, the late Chairman Mao’s secretary, was published on the Internet.

“What right does the Central Propaganda Department have to muzzle the speech of the Premier?” the letter said, referring to a branch of the party that focuses on ideology. “What right does it have to rob the people of our nation of their right to know what the premier said?”

The letter’s release two days before the party’s central committee meeting reflects an internal debate over the future of political reform, said Huang Jing, a visiting professor at National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The move may also be a sign that the reformist camp is in retreat following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, he said.

Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Twenty-three retired Chinese Communist Party officials accused “invisible black hands” of suppressing China's Premier Wen Jiabao's speech last month. Close

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Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

Twenty-three retired Chinese Communist Party officials accused “invisible black hands” of suppressing China's Premier Wen Jiabao's speech last month.

The Nobel award was widely viewed in the party as “a deliberate move to make the Chinese government look bad” and this besieged mentality has emboldened opponents of political change, Huang said. Publicly releasing the letter was a “desperate last effort” on the part of the reformists.

Peace Prize

Liu was given the Peace Prize for his struggle to promote human rights and democracy, the Nobel committee said Oct. 8. The 54-year-old writer was jailed for 11 years for subversion last year for his role in organizing Charter 08, an open letter calling for direct elections and freedom of assembly as guaranteed by China’s constitution.

Of the 303 Chinese academics, lawyers and retired party officials who signed the letter in 2008, five were also signatories in the latest petition, based on a list published by Human Rights in China, a pressure group. These include Hu Jiwei, former editor of the party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, and Du Guang, a retired professor of the Central Party School.

Du was questioned by security officers in January after he described the Liu’s sentence as “stupid and shameful,” according to a report on the website of Radio Free Asia.

The elders do not have influence “but they do have connections,” said Huang.

Letter Censored

A link to the Chinese-language version of the letter couldn’t be opened inside China, with screens appearing showing “network error.” A search in Chinese for Li Rui’s name on Google.com in China generated the following message on Microsoft Corp’s Web browser: “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage.”

Instructions to censor comments in the domestic media are made by anonymous officials from the party’s Central Propaganda Department, which is assuming a role senior to the State Council, the highest authority in the nation, the latest letter said. Addressed to the country’s legislature, it called for the party to respect the country’s constitutional guarantee of free speech.

“When our country was founded in 1949, our people cried that they had been liberated, that they were now their own masters,” the letter said. “But even today, 61 years after the founding of our nation, after 30 years of opening and reform, we have not yet attained freedom of speech and freedom of the press to the degree enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong under colonial rule.”

‘Black Hands’

The letter blamed the “invisible black hands” for squelching Wen’s comments domestically, including an August speech in the southern city of Shenzhen in which he called for more political openness. Wen’s comments on a future China with more freedom during a Cable News Network interview last month were not mentioned in domestic accounts, the letter said.

“I believe I and all the Chinese people have such a conviction that China will make continuous progress, and the people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible,” Wen said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” program taped Sept. 23 in New York. “I hope that you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.”

Freedom of expression has deteriorated in recent years, author Tie Liu, a signatory of both open letters, told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post yesterday. People in China often have to turn to Hong Kong to publish items discussing social and political affairs.

“For our nation to advertise itself as having “socialist democracy” with Chinese characteristics is such an embarrassment,” the letter said.

The Communist Party Central Committee plenum will be held Oct. 15-18 in Beijing.

-- Michael Forsythe. Editors: Ben Richardson, Bill Austin.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Forsythe in Beijing at mforsythe@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bill Austin at billaustin@bloomberg.net

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