Chinese government-controlled newspapers have openly criticized the detention of a village official who called for the end of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule, an extraordinary move that some media experts see as a sign that Beijing is granting more leeway on free speech.
The campaign is all the more remarkable because Ren Jianyu (任建宇), 25, was sentenced to a labor camp for posting online messages that called for the downfall of the party’s “dictatorship” — sentiments that would normally mark him out for harsh treatment by China’s media, assuming they gave any coverage at all.
Yet several outlets — including the influential Global Times tabloid, owned by CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily, and the Beijing News — have criticized Ren’s two-year sentence and called for more freedom for people to criticize authorities.
“It’s worrying that people can still be punished for expressing or writing critical thoughts in modern China,” Yu Jincui wrote in a Global Times commentary last week.
“Being sentenced for negative expressions was a political tradition that prevailed in some countries before the 20th century,” Yu wrote. “It’s outdated and goes against today’s freedom of speech and rule of law.”
Some free-speech advocates hope the coverage is a sign that Beijing wants to ease social tensions by allowing more public debate, and that this could be a priority of China’s incoming new leadership team set to be unveiled next month.
“Somebody high up wants to see these reports happening,” said Doug Young, professor of journalism at Shanghai’s Fudan University and author of an upcoming book on the media in China.
“The fact that this is happening, that you see this call for freedom of expression so close to a leadership transition, is unusual,” he added, referring to next month’s party congress where Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) is set to take over as party leader.
Ren forwarded photographs of Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) online with the words: “Down with the Chinese Communist Party” on them after the last year’s deadly high-speed train crash in July near the eastern city of Wenzhou, said Ren’s lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang (浦志強), adding that Ren had wanted to criticize the Chinese leadership for the poor official response to the crash.
He also posted a photo of Li Keqiang (李克強), set to be China’s next premier, with the words “Mafia leader” written on it, Pu said.
No one is suggesting Beijing will allow unfettered domestic media coverage of government or top officials. Even searching the name “Hu Jintao” on Chinese microblogs is banned.
Li Datong (李大同), a former journalist sacked for challenging censorship, suspects Ren’s case is a one-off, saying media criticism could have been sanctioned in this instance because it involved authorities in Chongqing, the municipality formerly ruled by disgraced senior politician Bo Xilai (薄熙來).
“At the very most, we can talk about it now because it happened in Chongqing and Bo was thrown out of office. It doesn’t indicate a reform of any kind,” Li said.
However, others within Chinese media say Ren’s case could be part of a trend, pointing out that criticism of his treatment came as Beijing said it would reform the “re-education through labor” system, which empowers police and other agencies to detain people to up to four years without a court process.
A Global Times journalist , who spoke on condition of anonymity, said domestic media outlets were also reflecting the increasing influence of the Internet on the news agenda.
The journalist said the newspaper took up Ren’s case because it had run hot on China’s Twitter-like service Sina Weibo, commonly used to expose abuses of power among lower-level officials. However, criticism of top leaders remains off limits on Weibo.
Chinese Internet users have posted more than 800,000 messages on Weibo over Ren’s case, mostly to protest his sentence.
They were particularly incensed by news that Chongqing police had also raided Ren’s home and confiscated a T-shirt with the words: “Give me liberty or give me death.”
The clamor for free speech highlights the challenges facing Xi as the CCP struggles to meet people’s demands for a greater say in how they are governed while preserving one-party rule.
Xi is set to succeed Hu as party leader at the CCP Congress that opens on Nov. 8 and then take over as China’s president in March.