HONG KONG—Chinese netizens met for a rare in-the-flesh political discussion forum in a northern Beijing suburb Monday, inspired by calls from premier Wen Jiabao for political reforms to stem rampant official corruption and abuse of power.
"This afternoon (Aug. 23), ordinary people from all walks of life and from the Greater China region will meet in Beijing for a discussion forum on Wen Jiabao's remarks in Shenzhen," wrote blogger and journalist Wen Yunchao, known online by his nickname "Beifeng."
"Among the participants are well-known scholars including Xu Youyu, Cui Weiping, and Luo Shihong, as well as a large number of well-known names on Twitter," he announced via the microblogging service Twitter.
The forum, chaired by Beijing Film Academy professor and social critic Cui Weiping, went ahead as planned via Twitter, although netizens reported a sudden power cut following the arrival of "a man and a woman wearing sunglasses" at the Miyun Shanshui Resort.
"A man and a woman wearing sunglasses arrived at the Miyun Reservoir discussion forum," tweeted user "leewua" at around 5 p.m. local time. "The electricity was cut, and we had pretty much finished talking, so everyone left."
Previous political discussion forums in Beijing have been raided by police and their participants pursued for "incitement to subversion."
Call for reform
Wen Jiabao was quoted in a report by the official Xinhua news agency Saturday as saying that it is important to "guarantee the people's democratic rights and legitimate rights and interests."
"We must resolve the problem of excessive concentration of power, create conditions that allow people to criticize and supervise the government, and firmly punish corruption," he was quoted as saying.
"We not only have to push forward reform of the economic system, but we also have to push forward reform of the political system," the premier said, according to Xinhua.
Cui told assembled netizens that Wen's speech was consistent with the demands of the controversial "Charter 08" document, which called for sweeping reforms to China's political system, and whose co-author Liu Xiaobo is currently serving a jail-term for subversion.
"Cui said that Wen's comments were daring and pioneering, and that they were consistent with Charter 08," blogger Beifeng tweeted from the meeting.
Independent columnist Mo Zhixu called on Wen to abolish the re-education through labor system, in which authorities can impose a sentence of up to three years without trial.
"If you can do this, I won't address you as shadow emperor, but as father," Mo tweeted.
Others demanded Wen release jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo who helped to draft Charter 08, a document that calls on the Communist Party to enact political reforms and uphold the constitutional rights of Chinese citizens.
Charter 08 was signed by 303 mainland intellectuals and sent shockwaves through the highest echelons of China’s leadership.
Liu was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 11 years in prison on Dec. 23, 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Following in Deng's footsteps
China's leadership has long expressed concerns that corruption and abuse of power are becoming the biggest threat to the ruling Communist Party, but has stopped short of political reform during the past three decades of economic development.
Ming Xia, professor of politics at the City University of New York, said Wen appears to be following in the footsteps of late reformist leader Deng Xiaoping, who used Shenzhen as a launchpad for economic reforms.
"Wen Jiabao probably wants to continue to use Shenzhen as a testing ground," Xia said.
"In fact, Wen is continuing a train of thought that began with Deng Xiaoping, who always said that economic reforms should come first, and then political reforms should follow," he said.
"He is using the power of Deng's words as a means of warding off the pressure being put on him by the new left and conservative forces [in the Party]."
Wen's public image is of a populist and progressive leader. He appeared alongside then-Party chief Zhao Ziyang in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during the 1989 pro-democracy protests that were brutally crushed by the military only days later.
After Zhao's ouster, Wen rose to prominence and was named premier in 2003.
But Yu Jie, author of Wen Jiabao: China’s Best Actor, believes that Wen only pretends to empathize with the Chinese people in order to maintain their trust in the government.
In his book, Yu Jie says, "There is only one objective for all that Wen Jiabao has done since he took the reins, and it is to 'act.'"
The controversial book was released in Hong Kong bookstores Aug. 16 after mainland Chinese police warned the author he could be arrested if he proceeded with plans to have it published.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai and Ding Xiao. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.