Another interesting development in China

It’s a major understatement to say that I’m far from an expert on Chinese culture (Major Understatement *salute*). However, the bits and pieces I do know suggest to me that their is a tradition that gives far more credibility and respect to elders than we do here in North America. That is why I find this story so interesting:

A group of 23 Communist Party elders in China has written a letter calling for an end to the country’s restrictions on freedom of speech. The letter says freedom of expression is promised in the Chinese constitution but not allowed in practice. They want people to be able to freely express themselves on the internet and want more respect for journalists. The authors of the letter describe China’s current censorship system as a scandal and an embarrassment.

The BBC insinuates that the imprisonment and subsequent Nobel Peace Prize award to dissident author Liu Xiaobo might have had something to do with this development, but CBC has a different take on it:

Wang Yongcheng, a retired professor at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University who signed the letter, said it had been inspired by the recent arrest of a journalist who wrote about corruption in the resettlement of farmers for a dam project. “We want to spur action toward governing the country according to law,” Wang said in a telephone interview. “If the constitution is violated, the government will lack legitimacy. The people must assert and exercise their legitimate rights,” he said.

Coming on top of Liu’s Nobel Prize, the letter further spotlights China’s tight restrictions on freedom of speech and other civil rights, although Wang said the two events were not directly related. Work on the letter began several days before the prize was awarded, and drafters decided against including a reference to Liu out of concern the government would block its circulation.

Whatever the reason, this is a pretty significant event. This is no longer a group of dissident bloggers and journalists sniping from outside the government, this is a group of influential people from inside the political system itself. The government cannot afford to persecute and imprison these men, as doing so would be a shocking loss of face in the eyes of its people.

The other part I like is that far from being just a bitch session, the letter outlines 8 concrete steps to improve the climate of free speech:

  • Dismantle system where media organisations are all tied to higher authorities
  • Respect journalists, accept their social status
  • Revoke ban on cross-province supervision by public opinion
  • Abolish cyber-police; control Web administrators’ ability to delete/post items at will
  • Confirm citizens’ right to know crimes and mistakes committed by ruling party
  • Launch pilot projects to support citizen-owned media organisations
  • Allow media and publications from Hong Kong and Macau to be openly distributed
  • Change the mission of propaganda authorities, from preventing the leak of information to facilitating its accurate and timely spread

Much like my issues with vague apologies, criticisms that come without suggestions don’t carry much weight with me. Simply identifying a problem shouldn’t be confused with solving it. This letter however addresses real issues and areas for improvement. The ideas may not be new, but the people providing them is definitely an interesting step that is worth keeping an eye on.

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