Chinese state media criticises jailing of internet critic, 25
Chinese government-controlled newspapers have criticised the detention of a village official who called for the end of Communist Party rule.
Their unusual intervention is being seen by some media experts as a sign that the central government in Beijing is granting more leeway on free speech.
Ren Jianyu was sentenced to a labour camp for posting messages online calling for the downfall of the party “dictatorship”, sentiments that would normally make him a target of media fury.
However, several papers, including the influential Global Times tabloid, owned by the party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily and the Beijing News have criticised the 25-year-old’s two year sentence and called for more scope for public criticism of the 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.
“Being sentenced for negative expressions was a political tradition that prevailed in some countries before the 20th century,” Ms 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 “It’s outdated and goes against today’s freedom of speech and rule of law.”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 allow more public debate, and that this could be a priority of a 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. “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 vice-president Xi Jinping is set to take over as party leader.
“If you’re an optimist, you would see it as a positive sign that the incoming government will make expansion of freedom of speech a priority under the administration of Xi Jinping.”
Ren posted photos of president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao online with the words: “Down with the Chinese Communist Party” on them after the July 2011 high-speed train crash near the eastern city of Wenzhou, said his lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, adding that Ren meant to criticise the leadership for its response to the fatal crash.
Ren also forwarded messages that said: “End one-party dictatorship, long live freedom and democracy”. And he posted a photo of Li Keqiang, set to be China’s next premier, with the words “Mafia leader” on it.
Li Datong, a former journalist sacked for challenging censorship, suspects coverage could have been sanctioned because the case involved authorities in Chongqing, the south-western municipality formerly ruled by disgraced politician Bo Xilai. “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,” Mr Li said.
However, others in Chinese media say Ren’s case could be part of a trend, as the criticism of his treatment came as Beijing said it would reform the “re-education through labour” system, which empowers police to detain people to up to four years without a court process.
One unnamed Global Times journalist said domestic media were also reflecting internet trends after Ren’s story took off on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo network, often used to expose abuses of power among lower-level officials. Criticism of top leaders, however, remains off limits on Weibo.
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