‘We demand that Chinese press censorship be dismantled in favour of a system of legal responsibility.Dear members of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress:
Article 35 of China‘s constitution as adopted in 1982 clearly states that: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” For 28 years this article has stood unrealised, having been negated by detailed rules and regulations for “implementation”. This false democracy of formal avowal and concrete denial has become a scandalous mark on the history of world democracy.
On 26 February 2003, at a meeting of democratic consultation between the standing committee of the political bureau of the central committee of the Chinese Communist party and democratic parties, not long after President Hu Jintao assumed office, he stated clearly: “The removal of restrictions on the press, and the opening up of public opinion positions, is a mainstream view and demand held by society; it is natural, and should be resolved through the legislative process. If the Communist party does not reform itself, if it does not transform, it will lose its vitality and move toward natural and inevitable extinction.”
On 3 October, America’s Cable News Network (CNN) aired an interview with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao by anchor Fareed Zakaria. Responding to the journalist’s questions, Wen said: “Freedom of speech is indispensable for any nation; China’s constitution endows the people with freedom of speech; the demands of the people for democracy cannot be resisted.”
In accord with China’s constitution, and in the spirit of the remarks made by Hu and Wen, we hereupon represent the following concerning the materialisation of the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and of the press.
Concerning the current state of freedom of speech and press in our country
We have for 61 years “served as master” in the name of the citizens of the People’s Republic of China. But the freedom of speech and of the press we now enjoy is inferior even to that of Hong Kong before its return to Chinese sovereignty, to that entrusted to the residents of a colony.
Before the handover, Hong Kong was a British colony, governed by those appointed by the Queen’s government. But the freedom of speech and freedom of the press given to residents of Hong Kong by the British authorities there was not empty, appearing only on paper. It was enacted and realised.
When our country was founded in 1949, our people cried that they had been liberated, that they were not their own masters. Mao Zedong said that “from this moment, the people of China have stood”. But even today, 61 years after the founding of our nation, after 30 years of opening and reform, we have not yet attained freedom of speech and freedom of the press to the degree enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong under colonial rule. Even now, many books discussing political and current affairs must be published in Hong Kong. This is not something that dates from the [territory’s] return, but is merely an old tactic familiar under colonial rule. The “master” status of the people of China’s mainland is so inferior. For our nation to advertise itself as having “socialist democracy” with Chinese characteristics is such an embarrassment.
Not only the average citizen, but even the most senior leaders of the Communist party have no freedom of speech or press. Recently, Li Rui met with the following circumstance. Not long ago, the Collected Works in Memory of Zhou Xiaozhou were published, and it originally included an essay commemorating Zhou that Li had written for the People’s Daily in 1981. Zhou’s wife phoned Li to explain the situation: “Beijing has sent out a notice. Li Rui’s writings cannot be published.” What incredible folly it is that an old piece of writing from a party newspaper cannot be included in a volume of collected works! Li said: “What kind of country is this?! I want to cry it out: the press must be free! Such strangling of the people’s freedom of expression is entirely illegal!”
It’s not even just high-level leaders – even the premier of our country does not have freedom of speech or of the press. On 21 August 2010, Wen gave a speech in Shenzhen called, “Only by pushing ahead with reforms can our nation have bright prospects.” He said: “We must not only push economic reforms, but also promote political reforms. Without the protection afforded by political reforms, the gains we have made from economic reforms will be lost, and our goal of modernisation cannot be realised.” Xinhua news agency’s official news release on 21 August, “Building a beautiful future for the special economic zone”, omitted the content in Wen’s speech dealing with political reform.
On 22 September, Wen held a dialogue in New York with American Chinese media and media from Hong Kong and Macao, and again emphasised the importance of “political system reforms”. Wen said: “Concerning political reforms, I have said previously that if economic reforms are without the protection to be gained by political reforms, then we cannot be entirely successful, and even perhaps the gains of our progress so far will be lost.” Shortly after, Wen addressed the 65th session of the United Nations general assembly, giving a speech called “Recognising a true China”, in which he spoke again about political reform. Late on 23 September, these events were reported on China Central Television’s Xinwen Lianbo and in an official news release from Xinhua news agency. They reported only Wen’s remarks on the circumstances facing overseas Chinese, and on the importance of overseas Chinese media. His mentions of political reform were all removed.
For these matters, if we endeavour to find those responsible, we are utterly incapable of putting our finger on a specific person. This is the work of invisible hands. For their own reasons, they violate our constitution, often ordering by telephone that the works of such and such a person cannot be published, or that such and such an event cannot be reported in the media. The officials who make the call do not leave their names, and the secrecy of the agents is protected, but you must heed their phone instructions. These invisible hands are our central propaganda department. Right now the department is placed above the central committee of the Communist party, and above the state council. We would ask, what right does the central propaganda department have to muzzle the speech of the premier? What right does it have to rob the people of our nation of their right to know what the premier has said?
Our core demand is that the system of censorship be dismantled in favour of a system of legal responsibility.
The rights to freedom of speech and the press guaranteed in article 35 of our constitution are turned into mere adornments for the walls by means of concrete implementation rules such as the “ordinance on publishing control”. These implementation rules are, broadly speaking, a system of censorship and approvals. There are countless numbers of commandments and taboos restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The creation of a press law and the abolishment of the censorship system has already become an urgent task before us.
We recommend that the National People’s Congress work immediately toward the creation of a press law, and that the ordinance on publishing control and local restrictions on news and publishing be annulled. Institutionally speaking, the realisation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press as guaranteed in the constitution means making media independent of the party and government organs that presently control them, thereby transforming “party mouthpieces” into “public instruments.”
Therefore, the foundation of the creation of a press law must be the enacting of a system of [post facto] legal responsibility [determined according to fair laws]. We cannot again strengthen the censorship system in the name of “strengthening the leadership of the party”. The so-called censorship system is the system by which prior to publication one must receive the approval of party organs, allowing for publication only after approval and designating all unapproved published materials as illegal. The so-called system of legal responsibility means that published materials need not pass through approval by party or government organs, but may be published as soon as the editor-in-chief deems fit. If there are unfavourable outcomes or disputes following publication, the government would be able to intervene and determine according to the law whether there are cases of wrongdoing.
In countries around the world, the development of rule of law in news and publishing has followed this path, making a transition from systems of censorship to systems of legal responsibility. There is little doubt that systems of legal responsibility mark progress over systems of censorship, and this is greatly in the favour of the development of the humanities and natural sciences, and in promoting social harmony and historical progress. England did away with censorship in 1695. France abolished its censorship system in 1881, and the publication of newspapers and periodicals thereafter required only a simple declaration, which was signed by the representatives of the publication and mailed to the office of the procurator of the republic. Our present system of censorship leaves news and book publishing in our country 315 years behind England and 129 years behind France.
Our specific demands are as follows:
1. Abolish sponsoring institutions of [Chinese] media, allowing publishing institutions to operate independently; and truly implement a system in which directors and editors-in-chief are responsible for their publication units.
2. Respect journalists and make them strong. Journalists should be the “uncrowned kings”. The reporting of mass incidents and exposing of official corruption are noble missions on behalf of the people, and this work should be protected and supported. Immediately put a stop to the unconstitutional behaviour of various local governments and police in arresting journalists. Look into the circumstances behind the case of writer Xie Chaoping. Liang Fengmin, the party secretary of Weinan city [involved in the Xie Chaoping case] must face party discipline as a warning to others.
3. Abolish restrictions on extra-territorial supervision by public opinion by the media, ensuring the right of journalists to carry out reporting freely throughout the country.
4. The internet is an important discussion platform for information in our society and citizens’ views. Aside from information that truly concerns our national secrets and speech that violates a citizen’s right to privacy, internet regulatory bodies must not arbitrarily delete online posts and online comments. Online spies must be abolished, the “fifty-cent party” must be abolished, and restrictions on anti-censorship technologies must be abolished.
5. There are no more taboos concerning our party’s history. Chinese citizens have a right to know the errors of the ruling party.
6. Southern Weekly and Yanhuang Chunqiu should be permitted to restructure as privately operated pilot programmes in the independent media. The privatisation of newspapers and periodicals is the natural direction of political reforms. History teaches us: when rulers and deliberators are highly unified, when the government and the media are both surnamed “party”, and when the party sings for its own pleasure, it is difficult to connect with the will of the people and attain true leadership. From the time of the great leap forward to the time of the cultural revolution, newspapers, magazines, television and radio in the mainland have never truly reflected the will of the people. Party and government leaders have been insensible to dissenting voices, so they have had difficulty in recognising and correcting wholesale errors. For a ruling party and government to use the tax money of the people to run media that sing their own praises is something not permitted in democratic nations.
7. Permit the free circulation within the mainland of books and periodicals from Hong Kong and Macao. Our country has joined the World Trade Organisation, and economically we have already integrated with the world – attempting to remain closed culturally goes against the course already plotted for opening and reform. Hong Kong and Macao offer advanced culture right at our nation’s door, and the books and periodicals of Hong Kong and Macao are welcomed and trusted by the people.
8. Transform the functions of various propaganda organs, so that they are transformed from agencies setting down so many “taboos” to agencies protecting the accuracy, timeliness and unimpeded flow of information; from agencies that assist corrupt officials in suppressing and controlling stories that reveal the truth to agencies that support the media in monitoring party and government organs; from agencies that close publications, fire editors and arrest journalists to agencies that oppose power and protect media and journalists. Our propaganda organs have a horrid reputation within the party and in society. They must work for good in order to regain their reputations. At the appropriate time, we can consider renaming these propaganda organs to suit global trends.
We represent ourselves, hoping for your utmost attention.
Li Rui, former standing vice minister of the organisation department of the CCP central committee, member of the 12th central committee of the CCP
Hu Jiwei, former director of People’s Daily, standing committee member to the 7th National People’s Congress, director of the Federation of Chinese Communication Institutes
Jiang Ping, former head of the China University of Political Science and Law, tenured professor, standing committee member to the 7th National People’s Congress, deputy director of the executive law committee of the NPC
Li Pu, former deputy director of Xinhua news agency
Zhou Shaoming, former deputy director of the political department of the Guangzhou military area command
Zhong Peizhang, former head of the news office of the central propaganda department
Wang Yongcheng, professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University
Zhang Zhongpei, researcher at the Imperial Palace museum, chairman of the China Archaeological Society
Du Guang, former professor at the Central Party School
Guo Daojun, former editor-in-chief of China Legal Science
Xiao Mo, former head of the Architecture Research Centre of the Chinese National Academy of Arts
Zhuang Puming, former deputy director of People’s Press
Hu Fuchen, former director and editor-in-chief at China Worker’s Publishing House
Zhang Ding, former director of the China Social Sciences Press at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Yu You, former editor-in-chief of China Daily
Ouyang Jin, former editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s Pacific magazine
Yu Haocheng, former director of Masses Publishing House
Zhang Qing, former director of China Cinema Publishing House
Yu Yueting, former director of Fujian Television, veteran journalist
Sha Yexin, former head of the Shanghai People’s Art and Drama Academy, now an independent writer of the Hui ethnic minority
Sun Xupei, former director of the News Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Xin Ziling, former director of the editorial desk at China National Defence University
Tie Liu, editor-in-chief of Wangshi Weihen magazine (Scars of the Past).
Song Yue, Chinese citizen, practicing lawyer in the State of New York, US
This translation was made by the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project and was first posted here.