China’s age of expression

About the author
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper. In 2006 he was the recipient of a Lettre Ulysses award for reportage on his experience at Bingdian

The political report of the seventeenth national congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) contains a new concept for China - it states that the people's "right to expression" must be protected. True, this concept is not really anything new (it appears in all United Nations declarations of human rights, for example, as well as in Article 35 of China's own constitution) but for it to appear in a Communist Party document shows how quickly the people who write the drafts are learning. They are managing to make party leaders' speeches sound up-to-date.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaperAmong Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"The root of slave labour in China" (26 June 2007)

"Beijing baozi and public trust" (25 July 2007)

"The next land revolution?" (8 August 2007)

"Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

"China's media change: talking with Angela Merkel" (6 September 2007)

"Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

"China's leadership: the next generation" (3 October 2007)

"China's communist princelings" (17 October 2007)

"China's Youth League faction: incubus of power?" (31 October 2007)

At the same time, the unprecedented controls on the news media (particularly online) imposed before and after the Beijing congress of 15-19 October 2007 make clear that these words are purely for show. What is freedom of expression, after all? It is not simply the freedom to say what you like in the comfort of your own home; it is the right to publish and broadcast your opinions publicly. Is this right of Chinese citizens protected? Of course not. At the party congress, the top party personnel may have changed, but the officials who monopolise ideology and propaganda are still the same. This shows that the policy of attempting to mould and control public opinion is a policy advocated by CCP general-secretary Hu Jintao himself. Chinese citizens can no longer afford any illusions about this.

The wager on speech

More broadly, however, there are signs that understanding of the true meaning of freedom of expression is spreading. After the seventeenth congress ended - and almost, it seems, as a response to it - an open letter to Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao started to circulate on the internet. The letter, written by Wang Zhaojun and released on 26 October, is startling both in the frankness with which it tackles sensitive subjects and in its sharpness of tone. The author, in short, is truly exercising his right to freedom of expression. Moreover, his profile guarantees that the letter will be taken seriously in liberal intellectual circles: for Wang Zhaojun is a successful businessman who serves on the standing committee of the people's political consultative conference (PPCC) of Anhui province (a body where other political parties and social groups are notionally represented).

Until now, the only people with any right to expression were officials, academics, writers, or other well-known public figures. The billion or so members of the public were the silent majority. Private businessmen were definitely part of this majority. They knew that careless talk caused trouble, and restrained themselves accordingly: quietly earning their money, and sometimes quietly suffering at the hands of corrupt or law-breaking officials.

Those who made particular contributions to the local economy were given places on people's congresses or people's political consultative conferences - and thus made showpieces for the "united front" between the Communist Party and business people. These political titles were an asset for business purposes, too valuable carelessly to discard. Those who were lucky enough to gain such titles knew that they were in even less of a position to make controversial comments: the officials who gave them the titles could just as easily take them away again. By all reasonable estimates, Wang Zhaojun would appear to be just such a businessman - someone who should go along with the system and not rock the boat.

But the letter (whose Chinese-language version is here) is evidence that he is tougher than this. His document starkly itemises the real and big issues that China is facing today: the stock market, commodity prices, real estate, social injustice, an inadequate government, political reform, privatisation of land, a reassessment of the 1989 democracy movement, press freedom, the ban on other political parties, the oppression of the Falun Gong movement, the separation of the military from the party, and more. All these are things that Chinese people talk about when they get together, but which are never mentioned in the national people's congress, or at party congresses.

It is obvious that Wang has to spend most of his time and effort running his business: he is not a professional researcher of government affairs, and he doesn't have the same access to information as people in academia. But he has managed to set out, in a straightforward style, all of the main problems that China currently faces. Wang's letter illustrates how any Chinese person in full command of his or her senses can instinctively see what problems exist, and what are the causes. In contrast, when talking about contemporary "social contradictions" the seventeenth party congress basically repeated the same hackneyed phrases that have been in use since the eighth party congress in 1956.

Wang certainly knows that he will pay a price for daring to say publicly what everyone is thinking privately - but he still did it. Moreover, he chose to act at the close of the seventeenth party congress, at a time when the internet is being more closely monitored than ever. This must have taken enormous courage. Such courage often encourages others to display the same quality in response: not long after the letter was published, another Anhui businessman called Zheng Cunzhu released his own public appeal for "immediate direct elections at the county and city level of government".

The voices of prophecy

Wang's action is inspiring for another reason: it shows that the Chinese people's political consultative conference (CPPCC) can be a body capable of more than hollow political gestures. The CPPCC was established by the Communist Party as a holding area for China's "democratic parties". When it was set up, it did have a certain basis in "political consultation", as many members of the democratic parties held senior government positions. After the anti-rightist movement of 1957, however, these people were persecuted: either branded as "rightists" and removed from their positions, or terrified into silence. The structure remained in place, but the essence of consultation was gone. The CPPCC became an institution which could accommodate the heads of the democratic parties and where senior officials could be eased towards graceful retirement; in effect, a straw doll without any political significance whatsoever.

Now, Wang's initiative has provided a redefinition of the CPPCC's mission and function: that is, genuine political consultation. From being the party's yes-man, it can begin to exercise a proper function: checking power, criticising authority, and speaking the truth on behalf of the public.

Many of the CPPCC members who have read Wang's letter online have marvelled at how he has "absolved the CPPCC of shame". Such words amply demonstrate what people are thinking. I believe that in future, more and more people will stand up and by example make the right to freedom of expression one of the Chinese people's fundamental human rights (see Lung Ying-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao", 15 February 2006). Indeed, it is the bravery of ordinary Chinese people to express themselves and speak the truth - and only this - that will advance the democratic process in China.