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(FILES) This file photo taken on October 22, 2002 shows Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo (L) and his wife Liu Xia (R) posing for a picture in Beijing. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
(FILES) This file photo taken on October 22, 2002 shows Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo (L) and his wife Liu Xia (R) posing for a picture in Beijing. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Globe Editorial

Elder Chinese Communists lead the way on free speech Add to ...

An open letter against censorship, signed by senior Chinese Communist Party members and published on Tuesday, shrewdly invoked some words of Hu Jintao, the President, and Wen Jiabao, the Premier, in favour of free speech, a welcome sign of vigour from reformists inside the party, which complements the dissidents outside it, such as Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

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Though the letter's lead signatory, Li Rui, was once a secretary of Mao Zedong and is a former deputy head of the party's organization department, many of the 22 other signatories write from very direct experience of media organizations such as the Xinhua news agency and the People's Daily newspaper, controlled by the party and the government.

They vividly describe how censorship works. An official of the party's central propaganda department will simply phone without giving his or her name, saying that this or that event is not to be reported and that so-and-so's writings are not to be published. Even certain sentences from speeches by Mr. Wen are not to be quoted; it is as if the propaganda department prevailed over China's leading politicians. Then again, it might be that these leaders do not want some of what they say abroad for foreign consumption to be freely dispensed at home.

The letter is particularly scathing when it says that the People's Republic of China has never had as much freedom of speech and press as Hong Kong did when it was a British colony.

What the letter asks for is quite moderate: freedom from prior restraint on freedom and speech, but not from all legal responsibility after publication. Its signatories want an explicit press law, and an end to what they call "the invisible hands" of the propaganda department. Such views from relative insiders are a hopeful symptom.

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