By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 2:44 AM
BEIJING - China's Communist Party Central Committee on Friday started its annual closed-door meeting to map the country's economic course for the next five years, amid increasingly bold calls for political reform and a continuing crackdown on human rights activists, dissidents and lawyers.
As the 370 Central Committee members gathered in a hotel in the west of Beijing, a new open letter began circulating on the Internet, signed by 100 scholars and activists calling for the release from prison of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and all political prisoners, and for China's "peaceful transition" to "a democracy, and a nation of laws."
"We call upon the Chinese authorities to approach Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize with realism and reason," the letter says. "China should join the mainstream of civilized humanity by embracing universal values. Such is the only route to becoming a 'great nation' that is capable of playing a positive and responsible role on the world stage."
The letter was written by Xu Youyu, a retired professor with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Cui Weiping, a professor and social critic with the Beijing Film Academy.
Some newspapers and magazines also appeared to be picking up the call against censorship and for political reform, by running front-page stories about Premier Wen Jiabao's recent candid interview with Time magazine, after largely following the official government line and ignoring his comments.
Wen's reform remarks made the front pages of the Modern Express in Jiangsu province, the Xiaoxiang Morning Post in Hunan province, the Beijing News and China Youth Daily. Southern Weekend, one of the most outspoken weekly newspapers in Guangdong province, came out Thursday with a large front-page photo of the Time cover featuring Wen, alongside his comments from the interview about the need for political reform.
The outpouring of media reports about reform - following days of an effective blackout - came after a group of 23 mostly elderly former Communist Party officials and academics published an open letter on the Internet decrying the "invisible black hand" of censorship.
But the censors remained busy. The new open letter by the 100 activists and intellectuals was quickly blocked. An Internet search for the letter using China's widely used Baidu search engine turned up only a message warning: "Because of the law and relevant policies and regulations, this search result cannot be displayed."
The bold calls for reform were accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, suggesting that little real change would emerge from the meeting of the party's top leaders. Activists and lawyers reported a continuation of the arrests and official harassment that began one week ago, when the Nobel Committee in Oslo announced its award of the peace prize to Liu.
Yu Jie, an activist and writer, said in an interview that he had just returned from an overseas trip Friday to find "four or five plainclothes policemen were waiting downstairs at my apartment." Yu said he was told he had to ask their approval to leave his residence, they closely followed him inside a grocery store, and they later refused to allow him to leave for dinner with a friend.
Liu's wife, Liu Xia, has also been under effective house arrest since going to the prison to tell her husband he had won the Nobel. On her Twitter account, Liu Xia expressed concern about the whereabouts of Ding Zilin and her husband, Jiang Peikun. Ding is president of the Tiananmen Mothers Group, a pressure group of family members of those killed in the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy student protesters.
Nicholas Bequelin, with Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, said his group was worried by the steps taken against supporters of Liu Xiaobo and "those who ask the government to respect its own laws." He added, "The widespread security clampdown reflects the nervousness of the leadership regarding the Nobel."
Questions of reform of China's one-party system and widespread official control of the media, long dormant topics during a time seen as increasingly restrictive, jumped quickly back to the forefront here after Wen's recent comments and the peace prize announcement.
In the Time interview, Wen declared that "the people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible."
"We should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticize the work of the government," Wen said, and then added, "I will not fall in spite of the strong wind and harsh rain, and I will not yield until the last day of my life."
In the open letter today, the intellectuals wrote: "Premier Wen Jiabao has intimated a strong desire to promote political reform. We are ready to engage actively in such an effort."
Zhang Ping, who writes under the name Chang Ping, a former news director at Southern Weekend, said Wen's Time interview "shows the absurd position that Chinese media is in - a big country's premier had to talk about a big topic like domestic political reform in foreign country rather than in China."
He said he did not expect much on political reform to emerge from the party plenum.
"I think the power-holders are much more willing to maintain the stability of the regime and the vested interests rather than push political reform," he said. "They have neither the incentive nor the interest to do it."
Washington Post researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.