Chinese Communist Party Elders Call for Free Speech Rights

Beijing – Almost two dozen Chinese Communist Party elders have signed a petition demanding that the “black hands” of government censorship in China be dismantled in favor of the freedom of speech rights enshrined in the country’s own constitution.

The open letter, quickly scrubbed from most Chinese Internet portals, was released just days before this week’s meeting of the central committee of China’s Communist Party, in which many observers expect the question of political reform to be discussed.

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

Referring to the 24 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 describes a vast censorship system in China that it said has gained too much power, going so far as to black out senior leaderships’ words: “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?

Although the document itself is not likely to lead to immediate change, most who signed retired long ago from their positions as media or academic officials, its unusually direct language is sure to fuel speculation about whether China’s leaders are serious about allowing more civil liberties to take root.

In particular, it drew attention to the ongoing debate about the intentions of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. In August, Wen said in a speech in the southern city of Shenzhen that “without political reform, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring.” Then earlier this month, Wen said in a CNN interview that he backed more political freedoms for China.

Those words were not followed by any actual change in China, and the comments were blocked from Chinese domestic media.

The letter noted that “even the Premier of our country does not have freedom of speech or of the press,” though some critics of the government maintain that Wen’s softer rhetoric is merely public relations for an authoritarian government. The letter was marked as being written on the first of this month, but its release on the Internet apparently didn’t come until Tuesday, presumably to allow more time for gathering signatures.

Its public unveiling came less than a week after imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu is serving an 11-year sentence for his role in drafting a political manifesto calling for more political and human rights in China.

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 said that China’s censorship system is “315 years behind England and 129 years behind France” and further down, the document said bluntly that, “Our propaganda organs have a horrid reputation within the Party and in society.”

Among those involved with the document 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, in his 90s, replied: “I don’t know, exactly.”