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China's Communist Elders Fight Censorship

ROBERT SIEGEL host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Over the past weeks and months, the Chinese government has been tightening controls on the media. Several editors have been removed and outspoken media outlets have been closed. Today a rebuttal came in the form of a public letter from several former Communist Party officials. A former secretary to Chairman Mao Tse Tung is among them.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Beijing. Anthony, what did that letter say?

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Well the letter was dated February 2, but it only came out today, we only saw it today. And it was specifically a response to the latest closure on January 24 of a supplement called Freezing Point of the China Youth Daily and the letter had some pretty scathing language. It talked about a totalitarian system that deludes itself, that it can keep the people in the dark forever.

It says that the government must not use stability as an excuse to deprive people of their right to free speech and it makes a number of recommendations, including reinstating the Freezing Point supplement and also passing a law to protect the rights of journalists in China.

NORRIS: And who authored this letter?

KUHN: There are 13 signatories to the letter. They're all pretty well known Chinese Communist Party Liberals. The best known of them is a man named Lee Ray (ph), who's now in his late 80s and he is a former personal secretary to Chairman Mao. Also among them is Hugi Way (ph) who used to be the editor-in- chief of the People's Daily the main Communist Party newspaper, and also a man named Dru Hodsa (ph) who used to be the Communist Party propaganda boss during the 1980s. They are all seen as sort of icons and senior statesmen of the party's liberal wing and they're able to make comments as bold as this because they're so senior that they feel they pretty much have impunity.

NORRIS: There's something curious here, Anthony, why would the former managers of China's propaganda system turn on it?

KUHN: Well, it's clear from the letter that they see the irony in this and they state that this is their current selves battling with their former selves, but they also interestingly point out that at one time they were young men calling for, well, the Chinese equivalent of give me liberty or give me death. And by that they mean that these are people who are in their 70s and 80s, they grew up under the corruption and censorship and repression of the Nationalist government and the Japanese occupation and they saw the Communists as a hope for China to modernize, to democratize and become independent.

And so even though they were loyal communists, they ended up being disillusioned under Mao's rule. They ended up being imprisoned, thrown into labor camps and now towards the end of their lives, they've come full circle and are speaking out as liberals against what they see as injustice.

NORRIS: Is this letter going to have any effect? Any chance that censorship might be easing, that the tightening on the controls on the media might be loosened a bit?

KUHN: It's hard to say that this letter would do that. I mean clearly this letter is indicative of the fact that the closing of all these press outlets, the shutting down of weblogs, the sacking of editors has ticked people off within the party as well as outside. However, the fact that it's these senior statesmen, these people who are all actually out of power, says that it's a rough time for the liberals.

Still, it's also clear that Beijing is definitely taking a lot of heat from both domestic and international opinion and in the past couple of days we've seen commentaries in the China Youth Daily under the Freezing Point name so it looks like there is hope for this closure of Freezing Point to be reversed. We also saw today, the state counsel defending its censorship of the internet today ahead of a congressional hearing in Washington on that very subject. So there is a lot of response to public opinion going on out there.

NORRIS: So, for now the letter seems to be largely symbolic?

KUHN: It appears to be sort of a rallying cry and whether there'll be any follow up to that remains to be seen.

NORRIS: Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.