Communist party elders call for ending censorship in China

Miner Pablo Rojas gestures as workers remove his rescue equipment after being pulled out of the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine
Miner Pablo Rojas gestures as workers remove his rescue equipment after being pulled out of the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine Hugo Infante, Chilean government / AP

BEIJING — Almost two dozen former Chinese Communist Party officials and academics have signed a petition demanding that government censorship in China be dismantled in favor of the freedom-of-speech rights enshrined in the national constitution.

The open Internet letter surfaced just days after jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize and shortly before the ruling Communist Party’s central committee convenes for meetings that some observers expect to include discussion of political reform.

“We hope they will take action,” said Zhong Peizhang, a signatory who headed the news bureau of the government’s Central Propaganda Department from 1982 to 1986. “As it says in the letter: to cancel censorship in favor of a system of legal responsibility.”

Speaking of the years since he was in the propaganda department, Zhong said, “I had hoped there would be some progress in terms of freedom of speech.”

The letter, which the authorities quickly scrubbed from most Chinese Web portals, describes a vast censorship system that's gone so far as to black out the words of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. “Even the premier of our country does not have freedom of speech or of the press,” the letter says, referring to Wen's August speech in the southern city of Shenzhen, in which he warned that “without political reform, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring.”

Domestic news media didn't carry his comments, and since then there's been no change in Chinese censorship policy.

“We would ask, what right does the Central Propaganda Department have to rob the people of our nation of their right to know what the premier has said?” the letter says.

Earlier this month, Wen said in a CNN interview that he backed more political freedoms for China.

Some government critics, though, view Wen’s softer rhetoric as mere window dressing for an authoritarian government.

While the document itself isn't likely to lead to immediate change — most who signed it retired long ago from their positions as media or academic officials — its unusually direct language poses a challenge to China’s leaders to state their intentions about civil liberties.

The letter was dated Oct. 1, but its release on the Internet apparently didn’t come until Tuesday, possibly to allow more time for gathering signatures.

The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper, reported that the document was written in response to the August detention of a Chinese investigative reporter, Xie Chaoping, who’d written a book detailing strong-arm tactics and corruption in a provincial government.

In one section, the letter says that China’s censorship system is “315 years behind England and 129 years behind France.” Farther down, it says bluntly, “Our propaganda organs have a horrid reputation within the party and in society.”

Among those involved with was Li Rui, a former secretary to Mao Zedong. Li has called in the past for reform in China, with no result.

Li Pu, a former deputy director of state news agency Xinhua, said his reason for signing was simple: “There should be freedom of speech.”

Asked what the letter would achieve, Pu, who's in his 90s, replied: “I don’t know, exactly.”


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