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As the members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China disperse after their four-day plenary session in Beijing, they will be more than aware of the concerns over human rights and democracy that are piling up in front of them. We will have to wait until March of next year to find out the exact decisions they have made, but until then speculation will be rife: have the political elite decided to face the mounting problems or merely focused on traditional – and more easily confronted – economical matters?
For years, international observers and a handful of Chinese nationals have attempted to instigate reform of freedom of speech and censorship laws. This month, however, the Chinese government has suddenly had to face three separate issues. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobao sparked outrage in Beijing, who claimed that giving the award to a political prisoner sentenced to eleven years for ‘incitement to subvert state power’ was an ‘obscenity’ and ‘blasphemous’. CNN and the BBC were cut off when reporting the story, the state media were banned from mentioning it, his wife was put under house arrest, and up to thirty of his friends and relatives were arrested. Diplomatic ties with the Norwegian government are at an historic low.
At the same time, a group of over one hundred party members – many old statesmen from the Mao era with little power today – signed a letter demanding reform and declaring that current laws breach the 1982 Constitution’s statement that ‘citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, procession and demonstration’. They have demanded a ‘press law’ which would allow editors to print freely without having to pass through the state’s Propaganda Department, the notorious ‘invisible black hand’ of censorship. Their list of demands also includes respect for journalists, an end to internet censorship and sanitisation of Chinese history, and free distribution of material from Hong Kong and Macau. Websites showing the published letter were immediately restricted.
Finally, rumours of internal strife within the party are growing. Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister – widely seen as the most popular politician in the country, and less hard-line than President Hu Jintao – has addressed reform directly. Speaking to CNN and at the UN, he said reform is necessary to ensure economic stability and success. Despite being one of the powerful men in the country, his comments were censored in the press and no mention of reform was made in coverage of his speeches.
China insists the country has no dissidents: only law-breakers. In reality, the majority of the population are happy with the government – the economy continues to grow at breakneck speed and, relatively speaking, the country is far more free economically, politically and culturally than at any time in its history – and most Chinese have little knowledge of, or care for, Liu Xiaobao. A survey suggested that amongst those who have, over half were against giving him the Nobel Prize.
But the fact that the population are not calling for reforms en masse does not mean the government does not have a duty to change. Hu Jintao’s premise of harmony in the country has meant that stifling dissent and criticism has been ‘justified’ because it has allowed the economy to grow in double figure percentages in the past years. The government believes growth below 7% would cause social problems (current predictions run at 8%), and is faced with heavy pressure regarding currency manipulation. China has a score of 0.47 on the UN’s Gini Index of inequality, where 0.4 is seen as an indicator of potential social unrest, and the government has promised to address this. A volatile economy does not need further problems rooted in political and social discontent.
A walk through any Chinese city could nowadays be a walk through any megalopolis. International banks, law firms and multinationals fill skyscrapers whose roofs are invisible through the smog; the golden arches and Colonel Sanders are ubiquitous; in upmarket districts, the density of high-end fashion retailers is spellbinding. Despite a sense that most Chinese are in fact not huge supporters of Westernization, many are fully aware of the opportunities it brought, while still keen to hold on to their national identity and live a sort of Confucian ideal simultaneously. It will become more difficult for the government to suppress any dissenting calls as the masses see the alternative to the status quo at first hand.
Internet cafes are patrolled by armed guards watching everything that happens on screen, and there is censorship of Facebook, some Wikipedia articles, international news and Twitter. But many can use proxies to get around the blocks and there is an ever-increasing awareness of the disparity between life in China and elsewhere. This does not mean the Chinese are going to suddenly stand up and revolt; rather, over time, disillusionment with the government could set in, forcing change.
If China wants to avoid social unrest and continue its economic growth, it is essential that the issues of freedom of speech are addressed by top-level command. We must hope that the Party Committee will respond to international and national pressure, but, even more so, realise that it is in their own interest to instigate political reform. Whilst there has been progress, there is still a long way to go over. Many believe that the Nobel situation will in fact have little – or even detrimental – effect, and most people realise that a letter from elderly statesmen from a bygone era will have limited influence. It is time for the fifth of the world’s population living in China to be able to speak freely – a fundamental human right recognised by international law and the country’s own constitution – and in the months leading up to the passage of the new Five Year Plan through Congress it is essential that governments, organisations and brave individuals continue to exert pressure. Only this way will the extraordinary economic successes of the past years be matched by equally commendable political and social ones.