The JMSC’s China Media Project was the first to break the big news in English this week of an open letter sent by former Party leaders to the National People’s Congress, calling for freedom of speech and press freedom.
At 17:30 on Tuesday, October 12, CMP researcher David Bandurski (@cmphku), was pouring through his Chinese Twitter feeds when he spotted news of the letter, which was written by prominent Communist Party elders.
The letter calls for the Communist Party to get rid of censorship of the press and allow Chinese citizens freedom of speech. It is signed by 23 people who have held high ranking positions within the Party, for example Li Rui, who was Mao Zedong’s secretary and Hu Jiwei, who was a director of People’s Daily and a director of the Federation of Chinese Communication Institutes. Other signatories include publishers, journalists and people who have worked as senior figures in mainland Chinese news organisations.
When Bandurski spotted the tweet, he found the letter online and started to translate it. It took him until 3 am.
“I am really glad I did it,” said Bandurski, who has spent most of his time since then fielding questions from journalists round the globe. “We beat everyone to the punch.”
Since Bandurski posted the translation of the letter online, the China Media Project has received its largest ever number of hits, with news organisations round the world, including the BBC, Guardian, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Globe and Mail, linking to it.
How the letter made its way into the open is not known, but Bandurski thinks it was probably handed round, by either e-mail or in person, to the members of the National People’s Congress on October 11 and made its way onto the internet early on the 12th.
“One of the most interesting points in this letter is the way is the way press controls have become what they call ‘invisible black hands’ that stifle speech in China, even the speech of the country’s most senior leaders,” said Bandurski.
Bandurski said the letter is important because, while it may not change the situation for the media in China immediately, it is likely to put some pressure on.
“I’ve spoken to some reporters who have dismissed the letter as ‘just symbolic’,” said Bandurski. “But symbolic gestures can be influential in China’s political climate. Premier Wen Jiabao has said publicly that China stands at ‘a great juncture in history and needs political reform’. ‘Without the protection afforded by political reforms, the gains we have made from economic reforms will be lost, and our goal of modernisation cannot be realised,’ Wen said. The timing of this letter is important because if China is to grapple with the question of political reform it must first have the ability to talk about this issue.”