Demand grows for free press in China

A group of retired Communist Party
officials and intellectuals issued an unusually blunt demand on Tuesday for
total press freedom in China, stating that the current climate of censorship
and government control of the press violated China’s Constitution and debased
the government’s claim to represent its citizens.

The document’s 23 signers, including
academics and former executives of China’s state-controlled media, have no
public influence on the nation’s ruling coalition of Communist leaders. Some of
them have issued other public demands for reform in past years, to no effect.

Still, the baldness of their message —
and its timing, coming days after the jailed intellectual Liu Xiaobo was
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and shortly before a major annual meeting of
party officials — signalled that not all in the ruling establishment were
content with the steadily tightening control over expression in the final years
of President Hu Jintao’s and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s leadership.

Their letter’s unvarnished language was
notable for including an undisguised attack on the legality of censorship by
the party’s Central Propaganda Department, which ultimately controls much of
what is published, broadcast or posted on the Internet here.

“This is an invisible black hand,” the
signers wrote of the department, according to an English translation published
by the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. “For their own
reasons, they violate our Constitution, often ordering by telephone that the
works of such and such a person cannot be published, or that such and such an
event cannot be reported in the media. The officials who make the call do not
leave their names, and the secrecy of the agents is protected, but you must
heed their phone instructions.”

The writers’ “core demand,” they stated,
was that China’s ineffectual legislature, the National People’s Congress,
dismantle censorship procedures “in favour of a system of legal responsibility”
for items that are freely published.

Some experts said that the demands,
which were quickly squelched by censors after being posted on the Internet,
were unlikely to have a serious impact on government policies.

“To the extent that people will learn
about this letter, it resonates, because it shows there are different
sensibilities within the party,” Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based
researcher for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said in an interview.
“But it does not, on the political level, alter the balance.”

Although the open letter carries a date
of this Monday, it is unclear whether the award of the Nobel Prize to Mr. Liu
three days earlier had any influence on its content or release.

It was primarily drafted by Xin Ziling,
a onetime director of the editorial desk at the National Defense University of
China, according to the wife of the most prominent signer, Mao’s former
personal secretary, Li Rui. A second drafter was Tie Liu, editor of the
privately published magazine Wangshi Weihen, or Scars of the Past, another
signer, retired publisher Yu Haocheng, added.

Their motivation apparently was the case
of a journalist, Xie Chaoping, who was arrested in August by Shaanxi Province
police officers after publishing a book, The Great Migration. Among other
things, the book documents years of forced relocations of local residents to
build a dam in the 1950s, and accuses local officials of later embezzling funds
meant to assist the relocation.