Communist Party elders urge end to China’s censorship

Twenty-three senior Communist Party members have published a letter calling for sweeping reforms of China’s media censorship policies. “Our core demand is that the system of censorship be dismantled in favor of a system of legal responsibility,” the letter said, according to an English translation by Hong Kong University’s China Media Project. Widely distributed by e-mail and posted on the Sina news portal, the letter started appearing on Monday, according to news reports. Titled “Concerning the Current State of Freedom of Speech and Press in Our Country,” the letter is signed in large part by retired party elders, many of whom held ranking positions in the media.

The letter is frank in its discussion of the role of the Central Propaganda Department in controlling the flow of news, something we have written about often. Criticism of state censorship is not new, but the authors use stronger language than most. The letter also offers a glimpse into the state’s powerful and opaque censorship apparatus:

. . . if we endeavor to find those responsible, we are utterly incapable of putting our finger on a specific person. This is an invisible black hand. 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. The officials who make the call do not leave their names, and the secrecy of the agents is protected, but you must heed their phone instructions. These invisible black hands are our Central Propaganda Department. Right now the Central Propaganda Department is placed above the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and above the State Council.

The letter may be an incarnation of a gradual movement toward greater media freedom in China. The prominent journalist Li Datong, who edited the China Youth Daily supplement Freezing Point until his 2006 dismissal over a controversial article, calls it a “drip by drip” progression. In May 2007, Li addressed the Society of Publishers in Asia on the future of Chinese news media. As with this week’s letter from party elders, Li’s speech is important reading for anyone interested in journalism in China. Here is an excerpt:

Chinese media are evolving. They are in the process, as we say in Chinese, of ‘tunneling through stone drip by drip.’ This evolution may, perhaps, lack dramatic action. It may not command attention. But as someone who has participated in and observed this evolution, I know it is real, and that it cannot easily be reversed. Don’t get me wrong. The traditional system of media controls in China grinds on. Many of the most important political topics in contemporary China cannot be talked about openly. News that authorities deem harmful to the legitimacy of their rule is suppressed.

The power and legitimacy of China’s censors have already been questioned publicly, and actions to close newspapers or ban books have met with an unprecedented degree of public resistance, forcing compromise on the part of authorities. This should make us feel encouraged. I believe the yearning for freedom of speech in China has never been more powerful than it is today. If journalists in China persist in upholding their professional conscience, if they work tenaciously to expand the space for truth, I believe the day when we truly enjoy freedom of expression in China, as guaranteed in our constitution, will not tarry much longer.

This week’s letter from party members comes just as the government suppressed news that human rights activist Liu Xiaobo had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Analysts such as the China Media Project’s David Bandurski say the letter is not likely connected to the Nobel Prize.

But there is interesting symmetry. News of Liu’s award remains all but excised from official media, as we noted in our alert on October 8. Liu, 54, was jailed for distributing something similar to the letter from the Communist Party elders. He was arrested in December 2008, the day before he and a group of academics published Charter ’08, a manifesto that demanded civil liberties, judicial independence, and the end to the Communist Party’s hold on state power.