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China: Party Veterans Issue Letter in Support of Free Speech

This hasn’t been a great week for China’s Communist Party leaders in the PR department, as they gather for a big party confab in Beijing today. Yes, they’re flush with the glow from high-octane economy and their new assertiveness on the world stage. But they’ve also taken a couple of public hits for their decidedly unmodern brand of repression at home.

Last Friday it was the Nobel Committee awarding its Peace Prize to jailed pro-democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo — with a pointed jab at Chinese officials for denying its citizens freedoms guaranteed in China’s constitution. This week it was an open letter from 23 former Community Party officials demanding more freedom of speech on the same grounds.

The letter — dated Oct. 1 but circulated on the Internet only Wednesday — blasted the “invisible black hand” that airbrushes press accounts, Internet postings and any public utterings critical of party performance. It was signed by a group of respected former party leaders, including a former secretary to Mao Zedong.

“Our core demand is to abolish censorship,” they wrote. To be sure, they’re already known as reformists, and they are no longer in positions of power to press for change within the party. But their words had to sting.

“This fake democracy,” they wrote, “respected in principle but denied in practice, is a scandal in the worldwide history of democracy.” The letter was quickly pulled from the Internet.

They were piggybacking on remarks by China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, on a visit to the economically vibrant city of Shenzhen in August, where he called for greater openness on pragmatic grounds. Unless China reforms its political system, allowing more personal freedom for citizens and media, and tackling corruption, he said, the country’s pell-mell growth and its very future could be imperiled.

“Without the safeguard of political reform, the fruits of economic reform would be lost and the goal of modernization would not materialize,” he was quoted as saying. “If we don’t push forward with reform, the only road ahead is perdition.”

He echoed those sentiments in an interview with CNN that aired last Sunday. “We need to gradually improve the democratic election system so that state power will truly belong to the people, and state power will be used to serve the people,” he said.

Tellingly, those portions of Wen’s speech and interview — while covered widely in Hong Kong — were never reported in the mainland press. The 23 elders took aim at that. “What right does the Central Propaganda Department have to muzzle the speech of the Premier?” they wrote.

The Chinese leadership is so opaque that it’s impossible to know if these critiques are having any effect. Not likely, says longtime China expert and Clinton-era National Security Council official Kenneth Lieberthal. “Many at the top understand they need major reforms, but this leadership is not about to take this up,” he said. “This is a cautious crowd. They’ve got a succession coming up (in 2012). They’re not going to shake things up by taking on major political reform at this point.”

But Reagan-era Defense Department official Michael Pillsbury says it’s a mistake to pooh-pooh the letter. “This is a big deal,” he said. “People here can get desensitized. They see everyone arrested for 20 or 30 years and nothing happens, so they get battle fatigue. And then they don’t realize it when something big happens.”

Pillsbury was struck by the “craftiness” of the elders’ letter, which dressed down the party’s propagandists for censoring the country’s premier. “They’re saying these guys shouldn’t be allowed to do this, to suppress the media — or top party leaders for that matter. They put themselves in the position of defending China’s prime minister against the Propaganda Department bureaucrats. I admire their trade craft!”

The two China hands don’t even agree to what extent the issue will be a topic of conversation at this weekend’s Central Committee meeting, as top party officials debate the country’s future economic and political policies in the run-up to China’s 2012 leadership change. “The letter writers wanted to frame this issue before the meeting. The people in power have no choice but to discuss it,” Pillsbury said.

Lieberthal has his doubts. “There will be talk in the corridors and at the hotel, but not in the formal discussions,” he said.” They’re focused on a smooth transfer of power. Political reform is something they’ll leave for the next guys.”

Only the flies on the wall at this weekend’s conclave in Beijing will know for sure.

Follow Margaret Warner on Twitter.

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