Monday, October 18, 2010

Press Briefing

Oct 18, 2010

In China, Even the Premier Is Censored. By L. Gordon Crovitz
The Wall Street Journal, page A18, Oct 18, 2010

From the outside, China can seem monolithic, run by Communist Party officials united by the prime directive of maintaining power. But every once in a while splits become visible and remind us that while China may now be the world's second-largest economy, there's a steep price for being a laggard when it comes to the free flow of information.

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, 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.

"Even the premier of our country does not have freedom of speech or of the press," the party elders write. "If we endeavor to find those responsible, we are utterly incapable of putting our finger on a specific person. This is the work of invisible hands. 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.

"These invisible hands are our Central Propaganda Department. Right now the department is placed above the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and above the State Council. We would ask, what right does the Central Propaganda Department have to muzzle the speech of the premier? What right does it have to rob the people of our nation of their right to know what the premier has said?"

The party elders note that Britain gave its colony of Hong Kong more freedom than the Communist Party gives China: "The freedom of speech and freedom of the press given to residents of Hong Kong by the British authorities there was not empty, appearing only on paper. It was enacted and realized."

The letter writers appeal to Chinese nationalism: "In countries around the world, the development of the rule of law in news and publishing" long ago replaced censorship, and "this is greatly in the favor of the development of the humanities and natural sciences, and in promoting social harmony and historical progress." They note that "England did away with censorship in 1695. France abolished its censorship system in 1881." This means "our present system of censorship leaves news and book publishing in our country 315 years behind England and 129 years behind France."

By censoring news in recent years about toxic baby formula, the SARS virus and blood centers infected with AIDS, Beijing has encouraged cynicism by its citizens about its own government. Even the elite—even the premier—wonder about their own liberties.

The letter from the party elders reminds us that it's not just dissidents who dissent. "Although most of this letter's signers carried out the party's will during their careers," longtime China watcher and legal scholar Jerome Cohen says, "the letter provides immediate tangible evidence that at least a minority within the elite is bitter and disillusioned." Bao Pu, a Hong Kong-based book publisher whose father was an economic reform leader in Beijing, reports that more than 1,000 people so far have added their names to the letter.

The Communist Party will reform itself when its splits become too wide to cover over. For the outside world, the opportunity is to encourage the growing number of disillusioned cadres who understand that modern countries rely on a free flow of information, for ordinary citizens and their leaders alike.

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