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“The Press Must Be Free!”

January 26, 2011

Open letter by retired senior party cadres

On October 11, 2010, just three days after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, Li Rui, Mao’s former secretary, along with 22 other senior party cadres, wrote an open letter to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee requesting that the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and demonstration guaranteed by the constitution actually be implemented. The letter points out that not only do the regular Chinese people have fewer rights than people in Hong Kong, but even the senior leadership is unable to speak their minds, as evidenced by the censoring of Wen Jiabao’s interview with CNN this past fall. The letter makes eight specific demands, such as allowing research into the Party’s history, allowing fully independent media outlets and the free flow of books from Hong Kong and Macao, and freedom of expression on the Internet.

Within a few days of posting the letter, nearly five hundred other Party officials signed onto the letter. This letter reflects that even some senior Party officials recognize the value that human rights can add to Chinese society.

Enforce Article 35 of China’s Constitution, Abolish Censorship and Realize Citizens’ Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press!*
A Letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress**

Dear Members of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress:

Article 35 of China’s Constitution, as adopted in 1982, clearly states that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” For 28 years this article has stood unrealized, having been negated by detailed rules and regulations for “implementation.” This false democracy of formal avowal and concrete denial has become a scandalous blemish on the history of world democracy.

On February 26, 2003, not long after President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) assumed office, at a meet­ing of democratic consultation between the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and democratic parties, Hu stated clearly, “The removal of restrictions on the press, and the opening up of public opinion posi­tions, is a mainstream view and demand held by society; it is natural, and should be resolved through the legislative process. If the Communist Party does not reform itself, if it does not transform, it will lose its vitality and move toward natural and inevitable extinction.”

On October 3, America’s Cable News Network (CNN) aired an interview with Chinese pre­mier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) by anchor Fareed Zakaria. Responding to the journalist’s ques­tions, Wen said, “Freedom of speech is indispensable for any nation; China’s Constitution endows the people with freedom of speech; the demands of the people for democracy cannot be resisted.”

In accordance with China’s Constitution, and in the spirit of the remarks made by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, we hereby declare the following concerning the material­ization of the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and of the press:

Concerning the Current State of Freedom of Speech and the Press in Our Country

We have for 61 years “served as master” in the name of the citizens of the People’s Republic of China. But the freedom of speech and of the press we now enjoy is inferior even to that of Hong Kong before its return to Chinese sovereignty, to that entrusted to the residents of a colony.

Before the handover, Hong Kong was a British colony governed by those appointed by the Queen’s government. But the freedom of speech and freedom of the press given to residents of Hong Kong by the British authorities there was not an empty promise appearing only on paper. It was enacted and realized.

When our country was founded in 1949, our people cried that they had been liberated, that they were now their own masters. Mao Zedong said, “From this moment, the people of China have stood up.” But even today, 61 years after the founding of our nation, after 30 years of opening and reform, we have not yet attained freedom of speech and freedom of the press to the degree enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong when under British colonial rule. Even now, many books discussing political and current affairs must be published in Hong Kong. This is not something that dates from the [territory’s] return, but is merely an old strategy familiar under colonial rule. The “master” status of the people of China’s mainland is so inferior that for our nation to advertise itself as having a “socialist democracy” with Chinese characteristics is an embarrassment.

Not only the average citizen but even the most senior leaders of the Communist Party have no freedom of speech or the press. Recently, Li Rui met with the following circumstance. Not long ago, the Collected Works in Memory of Zhou Xiaozhou was published, originally to include an essay commemorating Zhou Xiaozhou that Li Rui had written for the People’s Daily in 1981. Zhou’s wife phoned Li to explain the situation: “Beijing has sent out a notice. Li Rui’s writ­ings cannot be published.” What incredible folly it is that an old piece of writing from a Party newspaper cannot be included in a volume of collected works! Li said: “What kind of country is this?! I want to cry out: the press must be free! Such strangling of the people’s freedom of expression is entirely illegal!”

It’s not even just high-level leaders: even the premier of our country does not have freedom of speech or of the press! On August 21, 2010, Premier Wen Jiabao gave a speech in Shenzhen called, “Only by Pushing Ahead with Reforms Can Our Nation Have Bright Prospects.” He said, “We must not only push economic reforms, but must also promote political reforms. Without the protection afforded by political reforms, the gains we have made from economic reforms will be lost, and our goal of modernization cannot be realized.” Xinhua News Agen­cy’s official news release on August 21, “Building a Beautiful Future for the Special Economic Zone,” omitted the content of Wen’s speech dealing with political reform.

On September 22, 2010 (U.S. local time), Premier Wen held a dialogue in New York with American Chinese media and media from Hong Kong and Macao, and again he emphasized the importance of “political system reforms.” Wen said, “Concerning political reforms, I have said previously that if economic reforms lack the protection to be gained by political reforms, then we cannot be entirely successful, and even perhaps the gains of our progress so far will be lost.” Shortly after, Wen addressed the 65th Session of the UN General Assembly, giving a speech called, “Recognizing a True China,” in which he spoke again about political reform. Late on September 23 (Beijing time), these events were reported on China Central Television’s Xinwen Lianbo and in an official news release from the Xinhua News Agency. They reported Wen’s remarks only on the circumstances facing overseas Chinese and the importance of over­seas Chinese media. Any mention of political reform had been removed.

For such matters, if we try to find those responsible, we are utterly incapable of pointing to a specific person. They are the invisible black hands. For their own reasons, they violate our Constitution, often ordering by telephone that the works of such and such a person not be published, or that such and such an event not be reported in the media. The officials who make these calls do not give 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. We would ask, what right does the Central Propaganda Department have to muzzle the speech of the premier? What right does it have to rob the people of our nation of their right to know what the premier has said?

Our core demand is that the system of censorship be dismantled in favor of a system of legal responsibility (追惩制).

The rights to freedom of speech and the press guaranteed in Article 35 of our Constitution are turned into mere window dressing by means of concrete implementation rules, such as the Ordinance on Publishing Control (出版管理条例). These implementation rules are, broadly speaking, a system of censorship and approvals. There are countless numbers of command­ments and taboos restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The creation of a press law and the abolishment of the censorship system has already become an urgent task before us.

We recommend that the National People’s Congress work immediately toward the creation of a press law, and that the Ordinance on Publishing Control and all of the local restrictions on news and publishing be declared null and void. Institutionally speaking, the realization of freedom of speech and freedom of the press as guaranteed in the Constitution means making media independent of the Party and the government organs that presently control them, there­by transforming “Party mouthpieces” into “public instruments.” Therefore, the foundation of the creation of a press law must be the enacting of a system of [post facto] legal responsibility (追惩制) [determined according to fair laws]. We cannot again strengthen the censorship system in the name of “strengthening the leadership of the Party.” The so-called censorship system is the system by which, prior to publication, one must receive the approval of Party organs, allowing for publication only after approval and designating all unapproved published materials illegal. The so-called system of legal responsibility means that published materials need not pass through approval by Party or government organs, but may be published as soon as the editor in chief deems fit. If there are unfavorable outcomes or disputes following publi­cation, the government would be able to intervene and determine according to the law whether there were cases of wrongdoing. In countries around the world, the development of rule of law in news and publishing has followed this path, making a transition from systems of censorship to systems of legal responsibility. There is little doubt that systems of legal responsibility are superior to systems of censorship, and that they greatly favor the development of the humani­ties and natural sciences, and promote social harmony and historical progress. England did away with censorship in 1695. France abolished its censorship system in 1881, and the publica­tion of newspapers and periodicals thereafter required only a simple declaration, which was signed by the publication’s representatives and mailed to the office of the procurator of the republic. Our present system of censorship leaves news and book publishing in our country 315 years behind England and 129 years behind France.

Our specific demands are as follows:

1. Abolish sponsoring institutions of [Chinese] media i.e., the controlling organization that exercises Party control over the media], allowing publishing institutions to operate indepen­dently. Implement a system in which directors and editors in chief are truly responsible for their publication units.

2. Respect journalists, and make them strong (尊重记者,树立记者). Journalists should be the “uncrowned kings.” The reporting of mass incidents and the exposing of official corrup­tion are noble missions on behalf of the people, and this work should be protected and sup­ported. Immediately put a stop to the unconstitutional behavior of various local governments and police in arresting journalists. Look into the circumstances behind the case of [writer] Xie Chaoping (谢朝平). Liang Fengmin (梁凤民), the party secretary of Weinan City [involved in the Xie Chaoping case] must face Party discipline as a warning to others.

3. Abolish restrictions on extraterritorial supervision by public opinion [watchdog journalism] by the media, ensuring the right of journalists to carry out reporting freely throughout the country.

4. The Internet is an important discussion platform for information in our society and the voice of citizens. Aside from information that truly concerns our national secrets and speech that violates a citizen’s right to privacy, Internet regulatory bodies must not arbitrarily delete online posts and online comments. Online spies must be abolished, the “Fifty-cent Party” must be abolished, and restrictions on “tunneling [anti-censorship]” technologies must be abolished.

5. There are no more taboos concerning our Party’s history. Chinese citizens have a right to know the errors of the ruling party.

6. Southern Weekly and Yanhuang Chunqiu should be permitted to restructure as privately op­erated pilot programs [in independent media]. The privatization of newspapers and periodicals is the [natural] direction of political reforms. History teaches us that when rulers and judges are highly unified, when the government and the media are both surnamed “Party,” and when [the Party] sings for its own pleasure, it is difficult to connect with the will of the people and attain true leadership. From the time of the Great Leap Forward to the time of the Cultural Revolution, newspapers, magazines, television, and radio in the mainland have never truly re­flected the will of the people. Party and government leaders have been insensible to dissenting voices, so they have had difficulty recognizing and correcting wholesale errors. For a ruling party and government to use the tax monies of the people to run media that sing the party’s and the government’s praises, is something not permitted in democratic nations.

7. Permit the free circulation within the mainland of books and periodicals from the already returned territories of Hong Kong and Macao. Our country has joined the World Trade Orga­nization, and economically we have already integrated with the world—attempting to remain closed culturally goes against the course already plotted for opening and reform. Hong Kong and Macao offer advanced culture right at our nation’s door, and the books and periodicals of Hong Kong and Macao are welcomed and trusted by the people.

8. Transform the functions of various propaganda organs so that they are transformed from [agencies] setting down so many “taboos” to [agencies] protecting the accuracy, timeliness, and unimpeded flow [of information]; from [agencies] that assist corrupt officials in sup­pressing and controlling stories that reveal the truth to [agencies] that support the media in monitoring Party and government organs; from [agencies] that close publications, fire editors, and arrest journalists to [agencies] that oppose power and protect media and journalists. Our propaganda organs have a horrid reputation within the Party and in society. They must work for good in order to regain their reputations. At the appropriate time, we can consider renam­ing these propaganda organs to suit global trends.

We pressingly represent ourselves, hoping for your utmost attention.

October 1, 2010

Sponsors (23 people):

Li Rui (李 锐): former standing vice minister of the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee, member of the 12th Central Committee of the CPC
Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟): former director of People’s Daily, standing committee member to the Seventh National People’s Congress, director of the Federation of Chinese Communication Institutes
Jiang Ping (江 平): former head of the China University of Political Science and Law, tenured professor, standing committee member to the Seventh National People’s Congress, deputy director of the Executive Law Committee of the NPC
Li Pu (李 普): former deputy director of Xinhua News Agency
Zhou Shaoming (周绍明): former deputy director of the Political Department of the Guang­zhou Military Area Command
Zhong Peizhang (锺沛璋): former head of the News Office of the Central Propaganda Depart­ment
Wang Yongcheng (王永成): professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University
Zhang Zhongpei (张忠培): researcher at the Imperial Palace Museum, chairman of the China Archaeological Society
Du Guang (杜 光): former professor at the Central Party School
Guo Daojun (郭道晖): former editor in chief of China Legal Science
Xiao Mo (萧 默): former head of the Architecture Research Center of the Chinese National Academy of Arts
Zhuang Puming (庄浦明): former deputy director of the People’s Press
Hu Fuchen (胡甫臣): former director and editor in chief at China Worker’s Publishing House
Zhang Ding (张 定): former director of the China Social Sciences Press at the Chinese Acad­emy of Social Sciences
Yu You (于 友): former editor in chief of China Daily
Ouyang Jin (欧阳劲): former editor in chief of Hong Kong’s Pacific Magazine (太平洋杂志)
Yu Haocheng (于浩成): former director of Masses Publishing House
Zhang Qing (张 清): former director of China Cinema Publishing House
Yu Yueting (俞月亭): former director of Fujian Television, veteran journalist
Sha Yexin (沙叶新): former head of the Shanghai People’s Art and Drama Academy, now an independent writer of the Hui ethnic minority
Sun Xupei (孙旭培): former director of the News Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Xin Ziling (辛子陵): former director of the editorial desk at China National Defense Univer­sity
Tie Liu (铁 流): editor in chief of Wangshi Weihen (往事微痕) (Scars of the Past) magazine

Legal Counsel:

Song Yue (宋 岳): Chinese citizen, practicing lawyer in the State of New York, U.S.A.


* Originally posted on on October 11, 2010, now at 51BBS. ^

** English translation reprinted with the permission of the China Media Project. ^

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