Doubts On Reform Pledges

China's premier promises a more open society, but his speech to parliament meets with skepticism.

2010-03-08
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wen-jiabao-305.jpg Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gestures during his speech at the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 5, 2010.
AFP

HONG KONG—Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has called for greater oversight of government by ordinary citizens and media, but analysts and netizens have voiced skepticism that real change is on the way.

During his annual work report to the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on Friday, Wen called on China's leadership to create an environment in which it is possible for people to criticize and supervise the government.

"We must create the conditions under which people are allowed to criticize the government, to supervise the government," Wen told delegates to the country's parliament.

"At the same time, we must bring out the ability of the media to exercise a supervisory role, so that power is exercised in broad daylight."

As he spoke, Beijing police held the capital under a tight security clampdown, ensuring that anyone with a grievance against the government was kept well away from the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square.

Netizens joked online that Wen's promises sounded like the self-development promises made by primary school children in China: "These things are only ever a goal," one quipped.

Wen called on members of the ruling Communist Party to be scrupulous over their use of public money, following a number of high-profile online exposes of the lifestyles of high-ranking officials.

Call for official discipline

"All of the leadership, especially high-ranking officials, must resolutely implement guidelines delivered by central government regarding personal finances and property of the individual," said Wen.

"This includes their income, housing, investments, and the careers taken up by their spouses, sons, and daughters."

Wen also promised to strengthen channels for consultation with Chinese citizens, who should be given the opportunity to oversee the government's activities.

China's army of petitioners say they have repeatedly been stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harrassed by the authorities if they try to take a complaint against local government actions to a higher level of government.

"Does central government have any measures to ensure that people who report local officials online aren't hounded and detained, or pursued by local mafia?" wrote one petitioner from the eastern city of Ningbo.

Press freedom lacking

Another wrote from Chengdu that the government should first guarantee the media's right to carry out normal reporting and newsgathering activities.

"Officials involved in a situation have the responsibility to answer questions from journalists. Those who refuse to do so should be subjected to harsh punishment: at the very least a demotion or a pay cut for failing to carry out administrative orders."

But Hong Kong media reports said Chinese media have already been forbidden to report on any negative news from Beijing during the annual parliamentary sessions.

According to the Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper, petitions from retired members of the People's Liberation Army, from workers in certain industries, and from evictees in Beijing are forbidden topics.

And the difficulties faced by migrant workers in getting schooling for their children in Beijing were also struck off the list of permissible news items for traditional media and online news providers.

Beijing University economics professor Xia Yeliang said that Wen's promises of greater academic freedom in China's universities have also been heard before, and remain undelivered.

Twitter police

"They have been talking about reforming China's education system for many years now," Xia said.

"Now, they are saying once again that they want to turn the universities into top-flight universities [with no Party presence and academic freedom], but they haven't said when they will achieve this by."

One Beijing-based blogger, known online by the nickname Zhang Shuji, said China's Internet police regularly patrol micro-blogging services like Twitter.

"They won't necessarily take part in the discussion. They just keep a record," he said.

"It's a bit like using [the popular chat service] QQ. The Web police just make a back-up copy of all the chats. Then, if they get a subpoena, they just print it off for evidence that the person concerned was expressing opinions tantamount to incitement."

China had more than 40,000 active Twitter users as of last week, with more than 200,000 people registered on the service. More than half of Twitter's most-followed users are civil rights and pro-democracy activists from China.

Editors cautioned

An official report at the end of last year identified microblogging as one of the most powerful drivers of public opinion in China.

Sina's home-based microblogging service employs a team of more than 300 people, not just to monitor what is being posted, but to set up blocks and filters.

One of the coordinators of the community Internet blog Kenengba, A Chan, wrote: "Sina's microblogging service used to take down my posts without notifying me. Later on, they started watching everything I wrote, but they still didn't notify me."

In recent days, editors from 13 different regional state-run newspapers have been handed official warnings after they published a joint editorial calling for an end to the household registration, or hukou, system, which they said discriminates against rural residents who move to large cities to work.

Wen pledged in his speech to abolish some restrictions on migrant workers in smaller towns and cities, but stopped short of abolishing the hukou system, saying the authorities will take a "step-by-step"
approach.

Beijing University's Xia said the same pledge has already been heard from China's leaders.

"We have heard them say this many times now, over many years, to win a bit of applause in the moment, and nothing has come of it so far," Xia said. "If they really could do what they are saying, there wouldn't be so much discontent among ordinary Chinese people."

"Right now there is a huge gap between what the government says it's going to do, and what it actually does," he said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu and Qiao Long, and in Cantonese by Hai Nan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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