By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
Other analysts think that Wen could be trying to burnish his legacy, before he and Hu are scheduled to step down and turn over power to the next generation of leaders in 2012. Some think he could be sincere, but others question why he would wait until he has less than two years left in his tenure to talk about reform.
"I think you're talking about legacy-building," said David Bandurski, a researcher with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. "It's possible he's quite serious about political reform."
Bandurski and others cautioned that any differences within the party leadership should not be overstated. The struggle was not new, they said, but has echoes of past ideological debates and factional rifts, particularly those in the late 1980 and '90s, which were over whether the country would be socialist or capitalist.
What analysts find most interesting now is that hard-liners opposed to more political opening had seemed to be in the ascendancy, their power increased due to perceived "threats" such as the 2008 uprising in the Tibetan areas and the summer 2009 ethnic fighting between Uighers and Han Chinese in restive Xinjiang province.
"The security apparatus has hijacked the agenda, in a sense," said Nicholas Bequelin, the China researcher based in Hong Kong for the group Human Rights Watch.
"We have to be careful not to discount entirely what Wen has been saying" about the need for more transparency and political reform, Bequelin said. "I think he does represent a different sensibility within the party on one key issue, which is legal reform."
Analysts and a diplomat interviewed said the fact that Wen's words can get censored within China shows that in the current collective leadership, even the premier represents just one faction, and that competing powerful elements, particularly the Propaganda Department, still hold sway. "Even the national leadership is subjected to it," Bandurski said.
Researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.