IN THE spring of 2013, the Chinese Communist Party began circulating a document to party officials that carried a stern tone. The document warned of “seven perils” facing the party and urged a steadfast campaign against them. They were largely based on ideas of democracy, freedom and human dignity. Party cadres were cautioned against such “mistaken thinking” as Western constitutional democracy, civil society, total marketization of the economy and more. The paper was given the title “Document No. 9,” and the ideas began to circulate in the party. This was followed by a crackdown on human rights lawyers, media, scholars and others.
The text of Document No. 9 was eventually published in full by the Mirror Media Group, a Chinese news outlet based in the United States. The revelatory document put the Communist Party’s paranoia and illiberalism on display in its own words. Of the seven perils, for example, the fifth was propagating “Western news views” which, the document warned, could include “the abstract and absolute freedom of news.” Horrors, indeed.
Now, China has underscored that Document No. 9 and its warnings were serious. A veteran journalist, Gao Yu, 71, who repeatedly challenged the party over the years, has been sentenced by a Beijing court to seven years in prison on charges of leaking state secrets abroad by providing Document No. 9 to the Mirror Media Group. The media group and Ms. Gao have denied that she leaked the text, and her lawyers said she would appeal.
The verdict appears to be yet another example of China’s determination under President Xi Jinping to suppress dissent and to warn journalists of the consequences of challenging the party’s monopoly on power. Ms. Gao is known as a forthright and principled journalist. She was held in jail for more than a year after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and then served six years in prison in the 1990s on charges of leaking state secrets. She has written tough and clear-eyed commentary about China’s leaders, including Mr. Xi. In a column published in early 2013, she declared that he was not a real reformer but was determined to restore the kind of authority and legitimacy Mao Zedong commanded in the early years of Communist Party rule. She was right: That is precisely what he has done.
What China’s rulers never seem to understand is the impossibility of bottling up the ideas that underlie freedom and democracy. Sure, it is possible to go house to house, to arrest and imprison thousands of people — China is the only nation in the world to have a Nobel laureate, Liu Xiaobo , in prison for his views. But ideals and words cannot be jailed. China’s rulers should release Ms. Gao and Mr. Liu and other political prisoners now, but they also should come to the realization, at long last, that the strong nation they aspire to build must rest on a healthy and open society, not one that causes its people to cower in fear.