A group of 23 Communist Party elders, including a former secretary to Mao Zedong, have issued a daring call for freedom of speech and an end to censorship in China.
Signatories to the letter, which appeared briefly online in China before being deleted by the country's watchful censors, said they were spurred to act by the detention of a journalist who wrote about corruption in a dam project. China's absence of press freedom, they said, was "a scandalous mark on the history of world democracy".
The appeal, addressed to the National People's Congress, or parliament, states that although the 1982 constitution guarantees freedom of speech, that right has never been realised because it is constrained by a host of laws that should be scrapped.
It is the first such open call for freedom of the press since controversial attempts to draft a press law in the late 1980s were stalled after the crackdown on student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The elders wrote: "Our core demand is that the system of censorship be dismantled in favour of a system of legal responsibility."
The timing of the appeal is certain to embarrass and anger the Communist Party as the 300 or so members of the central committee meet behind closed doors tomorrow for their annual plenum to set policy for the next year. The leadership is already on the back foot after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a dissident serving the second year of an 11-year jail sentence for inciting subversion.
A group of academics, intellectuals and journalists met on October 1 to hammer out the details of the new letter. All the signatories who came forward in public are party veterans whose age or standing makes them almost untouchable by the security apparatus. They are demanding a system of post-facto review, saying: "Our current system of censoring news and publications is 315 years behind Britain and 129 years behind France."
Another important motive behind the letter has been the treatment by the state-run media of recent speeches and interviews by the Premier, Wen Jiabao, in which most mentions by him of potential reform of the political system have been excluded. The letter said: "Not even the nation's Premier has freedom of publication."
Mao Zedong's former secretary, Li Rui, 93, said: "If you can't see this [letter] on the internet now then that illustrates the problem. Currently control of freedom of expression is very severe."
He was unsure as to the potential impact of the letter. "It's hard to say what the result will be. From Wen Jiabao's recent speeches one can see that he supports political reform."
China implements mainly unwritten rules and regulations on what can or cannot be published, but the final call is made by the Communist Party's shadowy Central Propaganda Department, which the letter describes as an "invisible black hand".
The letter lists eight demands, including a call for private operation of two publications — the outspoken Southern Weekly and China Through The Ages magazine — and an end to the deletion of articles from the internet.
For all their clout, the veterans have scant influence over policy, and the letter is unlikely to move the one-party Government. However, Tie Liu, 66, one of the group's organisers — who has served 23 years of hard labour — said: "I think this letter will create a shockwave. It will be even greater than the Nobel prize for Liu Xiaobo."
Norway has called on China to lift restrictions imposed on the wife of the Nobel laureate. Liu Xia has been under virtual house arrest since the award was announced on Friday. A diplomatic rift between the countries has widened, with Oslo cancelling a string of meetings.