Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao talks reform, but most countrymen never get to hear what he says
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 7:29 PM
BEIJING - A group of former Communist Party officials has weighed in on a debate over political reform, censorship and China's premier, bluntly criticizing the party's Central Propaganda Department as an "invisible black hand" powerful enough to censor the prime minister and calling for an end to government control of media outlets.
The outspoken criticism, contained in an open letter that surfaced Wednesday and was itself widely censored here, comes at a particularly sensitive time, as the leadership continues to grapple for a response to the selection of jailed pro-democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo as this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner.
News of Liu's Nobel has largely been confined to official statements criticizing the decision. On Wednesday, Liu's wife, on her Twitter account, slammed the government for keeping her under house arrest and said she hopes to travel to Norway to accept the prize on behalf of her husband.
The message came from 23 mostly retired former party officials and intellectuals, many of them elderly and known dissenters from the past, and was prompted by the censorship of recent comments from Premier Wen Jiabao about the need for political reform in China.
In late August, during a visit to the economically vibrant city of Shenzhen, Wen warned: "Without the safeguard of political reform, the fruits of economic reform would be lost and the goal of modernization would not materialize."
His remarks were covered extensively in the media of neighboring Hong Kong but were never reported in most of the strictly controlled mainland press.
Then on Sunday, CNN aired an exclusive interview taped last month with Wen in New York in which he elaborated, saying, "We need to gradually improve the democratic election system so that state power will truly belong to the people and state power will be used to serve the people."
Xinhua, the state-run news agency, reported that Wen had given the interview and gave a few details, but omitted the remarks about democracy and political reform. The Beijing News noted that Wen's interview made the cover of Time magazine but also left out his quotes about democracy.
Wen's remarks to the U.N. General Assembly were similarly vetted in the media here to remove the references to political reform.
Political analysts and veteran China watchers see various possible meanings in this debate. Some have suggested Wen could be playing a role in a kind of "good cop, bad cop" scenario, in which the premier talks soothingly for outside audiences, knowing that his remarks will never reach an audience inside China. The "bad cop" would be Hu Jintao, China's president and Communist Party general secretary.
One subscriber to this view is Yu Jie, a dissident author who in August published in Hong Kong a critical book about the premier, "China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao." In an interview just before the book came out, Yu said he thought that Wen and Hu "were like riders on the same bicycle - they are riding in the same direction."
Wen has carefully cultivated an image as a caring leader in a sea of usually faceless bureaucrats. He is most often seen here flying off to the scene of disasters, leading the rescue efforts, coddling injured children or visiting hospitals.