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Chinese Scholars Demand Communist Leaders Relax Their Grip

Customers use computers at an Internet cafe in Shanghai, China. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
Customers use computers at an Internet cafe in Shanghai, China. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

A group of Chinese intellectuals wrote a letter demanding the Communist Party end Internet censorship and ease its grip on the courts, according to a copy posted on the blog of one of the signatories.

The letter, signed by 71 people and posted on the blog of Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan, calls for the party to end its oversight of government personnel decisions, leave court decisions to judges and lawyers, and allow people to speak and assemble freely.

The document comes as the Communist Party’s new leaders, including General Secretary Xi Jinping, have demanded some reforms including a crackdown on corruption and a halt to extravagance by government officials. In December, Xi made a speech urging the party to “behave within the scope of the Constitution” and “take the lead in observing the law,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported Dec. 14.

“I don’t think society should simply wait passively for whatever comes up but we should express our ideas and try to build a social consensus,” Zhang, who helped draft the letter, said in a phone interview. “Now is a good time to do something new and if we miss such a chance then our social problems will become more serious.”

Xi’s comments about respecting the constitution have “let us see hopes” of a nation ruled by law, the letter said. China’s constitution enshrines freedom of speech, assembly and the press, though the party stifles protests that it deems a threat to its rule.

Later yesterday, the official Xinhua News Agency ran two stories that addressed two of the issues raised in the letter. One quoted Chief Justice Wang Shengjun saying he wanted to “put an end to external meddling in court trials and ensure judicial independence.”

Liu Yunshan

The other cited Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan ordering party organization leaders to reject nepotism, bribery, “illicit canvassing and vote-buying” in selecting new officials.

The petition was reminiscent of Charter 08, a petition seeking similar reforms. One of its organizers, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for state subversion. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his efforts to promote democracy and human rights.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she hadn’t seen the report and declined to comment.

Petition letters seeking reform have a long tradition in China. In 1895, a petition signed by imperial civil examination candidates led to a short-lived period of national cultural and political reforms that ended when conservative opponents of the movement beheaded six of its leaders.

Political Changes

Zhang’s letter urged political changes under the leadership of the party, including a better implementation of direct elections of people’s delegates at the town and county level. It didn’t seek an end to the Communist Party’s rule or demand direct election of state leaders.

“None of this is new and it’s not something that’s really against the Party’s will,” Zhang said. “They already expressed their will in the constitution or in the charter of the party itself.”

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