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China’s Political Reformers Strike Back

by Elizabeth C. Economy
April 29, 2011

Locals read Chinese newspapers displayed on a public notice board in central Beijing.

Locals read Chinese newspapers displayed on a public notice board in central Beijing. (David Gray/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past year, the world has watched with growing dismay as China’s leaders have orchestrated a relentless attack on political and cultural openness in their country. Ai Weiwei. Liu Xiaobo. Teng Biao. Gao Zhisheng. Zuo Xiao Zu Zhou. China has rounded up its artists, writers, lawyers and musicians, releasing some, and then arresting more.  The result? The country wounds itself deeply by depriving itself of some of its greatest thinkers, most creative forces, and most determined seekers of justice.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who has begun to sound like a broken record, clearly recognizes this. He once again gently stepped into the fray, stating at a meeting in mid-April, “We must create conditions for people to speak the truth.” Yet this time he has some back-up—and  from a rather surprising place: the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily.

A few days ago, People’s Daily ran an editorial with a number of striking statements, including:

  • “Only in the midst of competition will the value of ideas be shown, and only through practice can they be tested…”
  • “…it is inevitable that various values and ideas, traditional and modern, foreign and homegrown, will collide and clash.”
  • “Because we serve the people, if we have faults, we do not fear the people criticizing them and pointing them out…”
  • “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (quoting Voltaire)
  • “Seven mouths and eight tongues are not frightening, but most frightening is when not a crow or sparrow can be heard.” (quoting Deng Xiaoping)

What is behind this fresh salvo from the reform flank? Chinese media professionals—particularly ones who have retired—have often been at the forefront of calling for greater political openness. We’ll have to wait to see whether any other media support the People’s Daily or whether the bold editorial staff is simply sacked.

The Chinese frequently, and correctly, remind us that the path of political reform will be decided by the Chinese themselves. The People’s Daily editorial, however, reminds us that the real question is: which Chinese?

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by bill

    you might appreciate this post by ran yunfei about an interview done by wu gouguang.

    specifically some of ran’s comments about how we look at chinese politics are interesting:


    i think you are underestimating the machinations of the politicians running china, especially when it comes to the statements of the premier.

    you might also find this interesting
    Views On Political Reform And Leadership Splits In China | Sinocism

  • Posted by Rod Nichols

    Liz Economy’s short report is a breathtaking whiff of encouragement. Perhaps the “pushback” will be short lived. But it is VERY important for attentive US observers to see the nature of any debates in the PRC. Thanks, Liz. I had NO idea even this bit of a break was possible.

  • Posted by Mike Cahill

    It is naive and possibly a little dangerous for Economy to embrace the erroneous idea that the PRC Chinese substantially control the path to reform. If we have learned one disconcerting thing over the last half century, it is that the world is fully networked, and as we can see from the Arab Spring, black swans are just around each foreign corner. So what MIGHT this mean in clout-determined political reality?

    Well for one thing, we should listen keenly when Solomon Rushdie ominously instructs the CPC that it will be judged by the same standards that it uses on its own artists. This is a strangely phrased and threatening concoction. Rushdie is an intellectual, but no pansy. He was personally slammed with several fear laden decades to ponder the power and fallibility of death-dealing political bosses. I doubt that he is simply posturing.

    No. More likely he is saying that non-political Western leaders are NOT out of the game yet. Rushdie is street-wise, and his cohort is beginning to stir. For one thing he is warning that mass economic boycotts are NOT ONLY the weapons of political elites, and that other Western “trend setters”, like himself, might be able manufacture a boycott of PRC goods that would make the push-back against Japanese cars in the 1970s look like a love fest. (recall the brutal murder of an Asian student in Detroit back then)

    If Western masses were even partially mobilized, such boycotts would be very difficult to put back in the box, and they would have devastating, decades-long commercial impact on PRC finances. The entire engineering cadre at, and around, the Central Committee is fully aware of this.

    So this current “crackdown” contains serious risks for the PRC, so Economy and others need to be alert… political elites have not yet fully smothered the levers of power in the West… or the PRC.

    Additionally, we all need to look ahead to methods of “helping” the CPC from its perch at the top… ASAP. They have done their work and need the rest.

  • Posted by thealephmag

    Slowly but surely, the Chinese government is beginning to realize that it needs to open the safety valve on the censorship of intellectuals lest it appear fragile and paranoid, and therefore weak. Even if the CCP’s main focus is on the maintenance of its power, it has to realize that the ideas they previously quashed can only help them to govern more effectively. What can the party learn about its citizens from genuflecting party members? If there is an ideal time to pursue reform in earnest and allow “a hundred schools of thought” to give their input, it is now, when any idea severely anti-CCP has little traction with a citizenry enjoying international whispers of a new superpower.

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