Communist officials call for free speech in China

In an open letter, the mostly former party elders, including a past deputy director of the state news agency, demand an end to censorship.

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BEIJING // A call by Chinese Communist party elders for greater freedom of speech days after a dissident was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize has been given a cautious response from political observers amid uncertainty about the appetite for reform among top officials.

In an open letter published on Wednesday, a group of 23 mostly retired officials urged the National People's Congress, China's legislature, for an end to state-sanctioned censorship, and for laws to protect the freedom of journalists.

Among the signatories were Li Rui, a former secretary to Mao Zedong and previously a member of the party's central committee, Li Pu, a former deputy director of the state Xinhua news agency, and other former state media heads.

"For our nation to advertise itself as having 'socialist democracy' with Chinese characteristics is such an embarrassment," the letter said. It said the state should stop arresting journalists, must stop employing "online spies" to monitor internet chat rooms and allow the free circulation of books.

The letter was made public before the start today of a four-day meeting of the party's central committee, a key-decision making body. It comes less than a week after Liu Xiaobo, a jailed pro-democracy dissident, was named the winner of the peace prize. Much of the reporting of the award was censored.

Yesterday, Agence France-Presse reported that China denounced the prize awarded to Mr Liu as tantamount to "encouraging crime", and state media said the award was part of a western "ideological war" against Beijing.

The open letter mentions that calls for political reform even from the country's premier, Wen Jiabao, have been censored by official media such as Xinhua and China Central Television. In recent statements, made in an interview to CNN and in a speech in Shenzhen, Mr Wen said the benefits of economic reform would be lost if they were not followed by political changes.

This week's open letter said "invisible black hands" were responsible for massaging what the public got to see or read and preventing them from hearing reformist comments from the likes of Mr Wen. It described a press law to prevent censorship as "an urgent task".

"We would ask, what right does the central propaganda department have to muzzle the speech of the premier?" the letter said. The significance of the letter will depend on whether its sentiments are echoed by similar comments by current officials, or whether the party acts to stop such views being aired, said Chan Chepo, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. It was difficult to determine how much support for reform there was among senior officials, he said.

"We need to see how far this tide goes," he said. More reform-minded figures in the communist party, such as Mr Wen, were "definitely not" advocating multi-party democracy, Mr Chan said. Instead, their aim was to speed the development of intra-party democracy, making officials more accountable. Some signatories to this week's letter have previously called for reforms and been ignored, said Ding Xueliang, a political analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. For the past two decades, he said, major party meetings have been preceded by comments from "senior liberals" in favour of reform, yet little happened.

"The world does not need to open the champagne yet," he said. In a separate development, the Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, yesterday said it would be "desirable" for Liu Xiaobo to be released.

"I think it is important that human rights and fundamental freedoms, which are universal values, should also be guaranteed in China," he said.