But what about the larger question of bringing change to China’s political institutions? Before the plenum began, a group of retired Communist Party officials had issued its own call for reform. Led by one of Mao Zedong’s private secretaries, Li Rui, they represent the last vestiges of a serious reformist wing in the party, one that in the 1980s vigorously supported free speech and even some political reforms such as separating the communist party from the government, so that in theory the ruling party could be changed. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, they were marginalized and have steadily lost ground. Each year they issue similar petitions that get written up in the foreign press but have no impact in China.
This time, however, there was another twist. During an interview with CNN on September 29, Premier Wen seemed to make absolutely clear what he had meant by political reform during his Shenzhen speech. China, he said, needed “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.” That sounded like more than the usual calls for making the current system a bit smoother. Was some sort of a debate going to happen at the Plenum?
As tantalizing as it was, such speculation seemed destined to remain mere rumblings among Pekingologists—until the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was announced on October 8. By awarding Liu Xiaobo the Nobel, the small group of Norwegians crystalized a few things in China. As I recently argued in The New York Review the Communist Party is resurgent and seems in many ways all-powerful. In the rush to take part in China’s remarkable economic growth, foreigners are up to all sorts of unscrupulous activity, such as pumping money into party-run oligopolies and allowing the party’s propaganda apparatus to influence the study of China. And yet here was an award that said, yes, fine, but don’t forget Chinese citizens like Liu, who have struggled for decades for what many people consider to be the basic, universal value of free speech. He is best known for his involvement in drafting Charter 08, which essentially requests that the Chinese government live up to the rights it guarantees in its constitution and give up its monopoly on political power.
The Nobel announcement galvanized some Chinese, with a group of about 100 dissidents and activists petitioning for Liu’s release from prison, where he is serving an eleven-year sentence. Across a broad spectrum of non-governmental organizations and educated people, there is a sense that the prize was certainly deserved. One can nit-pick Liu’s past and find some views (such as his early support for the Iraq war) that show, surprise surprise, that he is not perfect. But overall, politically active people in China can identify with his moderate approach.