(The New York Times) BEIJING — For China’s small band of liberal intellectuals, this is the springtime of hope. Six days ago, one of their own, the writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On Monday, a score of Communist Party elders and scholars issued a scalding public attack on the government’s censorship regime. Since mid-August, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has endorsed political reform on at least seven occasions, including on CNN and at the United Nations.
But as the party’s elite gather in Beijing for the opening of their annual plenum on Friday, there is little suggestion that the climate for political change is anything but wintry. Not that China is incapable of change: this is the nation that traded its founding ideology of socialism for state-driven capitalism without so much as a goodbye wave, and reaped immense success as a result.
Surrendering beliefs, however, is duck soup compared with surrendering a monopoly on power. Mr. Liu’s award, which the Foreign Ministry called an “insult” to the Chinese people, is unlikely to persuade the Communist Party to give up its grip on power. But it does reflect pent-up frustration at home, even among the liberal-leaning members of the Communist Party elite, that China needs to renew a conversation about how its single-party rule can become more transparent and popular.
So hazy are the party’s internal politics that the most seasoned outsiders can only speculate on what the leadership will discuss when the Central Committee’s approximately 370 members gather to talk strategy and pave the way for a leadership succession in 2012.
Expectations of political change are a bit higher this year, largely because Mr. Wen has called publicly for undefined steps toward political openness in the weeks before the plenum. But the coalition of top rulers that includes him has, if anything, tightened controls in crucial areas like free speech. With the installation of a new leadership just two years away and the party’s conservative leaders in clear control of a robust economy and stable political system there is no pressing urgency to tinker with a machine that, for them, has worked well.
Skeptics say even Mr. Wen’s talk of “restructuring” is ambiguous. Calls for more democracy are common in Chinese politics, but they almost always refer to improving the party’s decision-making bureaucracy and making its lower-ranking officials more accountable rather than promoting a broader conception of individual freedom or political competition.
Perhaps the clearest signal of the ruling coalition’s dim view of serious change is this: Few of Mr. Wen’s remarks on reform, from an Aug. 21 speech in Shenzhen to an Oct. 3 interview on CNN, have been reported nationally by China’s state-controlled media. In contrast, a second speech in Shenzhen by President Hu Jintao stressed resolute dedication to “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — and received extensive publicity.
Still, Mr. Liu’s award, and the climate of expectations around it, complicate China’s position in several ways.
The most obvious involves its multibillion-dollar effort to burnish its image worldwide. From a vast expansion of its news service and broadcasting operations to splashy events like the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo, the government has methodically worked to cast China as a progressive, welcoming model for the rest of the world to admire and emulate. The expansion of China’s soft power — the nation’s “stunted leg,” officials have declared — was called a national goal by Mr. Hu in his 2007 work report to the party’s Congress.
With Mr. Liu’s award, that goal “is essentially dead in the water,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview. It may well remain there as long as Mr. Liu serves his 11-year prison sentence for subversion, levied after he helped write a manifesto calling for democratic reform and an end to the party’s monopoly on power.
“You cannot make your political system very appealing to global public opinion,” Mr. Bequelin said, “when you have a Nobel Peace Prize winner in prison and his wife under house arrest.”
At home, the party’s ability to manage news of Mr. Liu’s new fame is considerably greater. Few Chinese know who Mr. Liu is, and fewer still have enough interest in politics to follow his story.
Yet officials have less direct control over the elite — the educated, well-traveled group of political and business leaders, and future leaders, who know full well what the Nobel Prize means. It is a group that can easily sidestep censorship barriers and that can recognize manipulation of the news when it sees it.
“In this sense, there are already enough people in China who know about this,” said Liu Junning, a political scientist and former scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has written extensively about political reform. “Their number is not a very important issue, or a problem. For the people who are interested in politics and are in these kinds of places, it’s enough that they know.”
And when the furor over the award dies down, the party will still have to grapple with Mr. Wen’s call for faster political evolution.
In recent weeks, some newspapers have ignored censors and published long accounts of Mr. Wen’s views on political restructuring, some of them featuring the prime minister’s recent appearance on the cover of Time magazine’s Asia edition. This week’s public demand for a free press by 23 retired party officials and intellectuals is not the first political broadside by liberal elders. But its language, including a charge that the Propaganda Department is a “black hand” that violates China’s Constitution, is unusually bold.
But the party has faced strong domestic and international pressure before. And it has proved that it does not like to make decisions under pressure, not on revaluing its currency, and certainly not on changing its political system.
“There are a lot of people going around saying that a gap is opening,” said David Bandurski, an analyst at the China Media Project of Hong Kong University, in a telephone interview this week. “I won’t succumb to this temptation. That is a game that has been played constantly in China — stepping forward, stepping back.”
And if a gap had opened, how would one tell?
Yu Haocheng, an 85-year-old retired publishing executive who signed the press-freedom manifesto, also signed Charter 08, the pro-democracy petition written by Liu Xiaobo and others. Asked this week who among influential figures might sympathize with the idea of a free press, he named Mr. Wen and Gen. Liu Yazhou, a National Defense University official known for his reformist political bent.
“It’s unclear if there’s anyone else,” Mr. Yu said.
Nor did he expect the authorities to respond to the elders’ latest set of demands. “There is never a response,” he said.