Consider Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. He has called for political reform several times in recent months, but censors have blocked domestic reporting of his comments. This led to an open letter from 23 well-known Communist Party elders calling for free speech. The letter was posted last week in a blog area of sina.com, one of the country’s largest websites, and widely shared before being removed.
This letter is worth attention, both for its authors and its substance. The signatories include a who’s who of former Communist Party propagandists, including Li Rui, the former private secretary to Mao Zedong, and retired top editors of the People’s Daily (the party’s mouthpiece), Xinhua (the official news agency) and the China Daily (the state-run English-language newspaper).
“Retired older officials can speak more loudly,” says Xiao Qiang, editor of China Digital Times, a news site based at the University of California, Berkeley. “They can protect the middle-aged people who currently hold the same roles as editors and party propagandists by speaking for them.” Mr. Xiao points out that the letter’s “rhetoric on political reform is not very different from the language of the Charter 08 document,” the freedom manifesto that sent Liu Xiaobo to jail and helped him win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The letter notes that the Chinese Constitution claims freedom of speech and the press, but this “formal avowal and concrete denial has become a scandalous mark.” It cites a CNN interview earlier this month in which Premier Wen said, “Freedom of speech is indispensable for any nation,” and points out the irony that these comments were blocked by domestic media.