BEIJING -- A former secretary to Mao Zedong as well as an ex-publisher of the People's Daily are among retired Communist Party heavyweights who have published a toughly worded open letter calling on the Chinese government to abolish censorship.
The letter began circulating Oct. 1, but the campaign has gained traction since Friday when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned for his role in drafting a similar pro-democracy letter called Charter 08 two years ago.
This latest call for freedom will not be so easily suppressed because of the Communist Party bona fides of the people who signed.
"These are important people who signed the letter with their names, titles and locations, requesting freedom of expression," Li Datong, a retired editor from the Communist Youth Daily who is friends with the organizers, said this week. "Clearly, they are not afraid. The trend cannot be stopped."
Sort of a cross between a chain letter and a petition, this latest missive has been popping up -- and then disappearing as it is removed by censors -- on various Chinese bulletin boards and blogs over the last few days. It calls for the uncensored circulation of books, newspapers and magazines and the lifting of restrictions on the Internet. It demands the dismantling of the Central Propaganda Department, the powerful body that reports directly to the Politburo and which the letter's drafters refer to as an "invisible black hand."
"When our country was founded in 1949, our people cried out that they had been liberated, that they were now their own masters," the letter states. "But even today, 61 years after the founding of our nation, after 30 years of opening and reform, we have not yet attained the freedom of speech and press to the degree enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong under colonial rule."
The letter noted that Chinese state media have not even reported on a recent series of remarks made by Premier Wen Jiabao calling for political reform. "Without the protection afforded by political reforms, the gains we have made from economic reforms will be lost," Wen said in a speech in August in Shenzhen -- remarks that were subsequently repeated in various interviews during a trip last month to attend the U.N. General Assembly.
"Not only the average citizen, but even the most senior leaders of the Communist Party, have no freedom of speech," the letter complained.
The original 23 signatories to the letter included Li Rui, now 93, a former secretary to Mao who was later imprisoned for criticizing his excesses -- as well former top officials of People's Daily, the China Daily and other heavyweight retirees, such as the former curator of the Forbidden City and a former deputy political director of the military from Guangzhou.
More than 400 others have since added their signatures, according to Li Datong, who said, "The numbers would have been in the thousands except that these people are old and not very good at sending the letter over the Internet."
The Chinese government, meanwhile, continued to lash out in fury over the awarding of the Nobel Prize to literature professor and essayist Liu Xiaobo, calling it a plot to weaken China.
"If Mr. Nobel has a soul in heaven, this is definitely not what he wants to see," complained the Global Times, a newspaper with close ties to the Communist Party, in an editorial on Wednesday.
Liu Xiaobo's wife, fellow activist Liu Xia, has vowed that she will try to accept the Nobel Prize Dec. 10 in Oslo on behalf of her husband, if she is allowed to leave China. At the moment, she is under house arrest at the couple's home in Beijing.
"I can't get out of the door of my own apartment, let alone the door of the country," Liu Xia said in an interview published Wednesday in the Times of London.
European diplomats who attempted to visit Liu Xia on Tuesday were not permitted through the gates of her apartment compound. Half a dozen Chinese activists, including some of Liu's friends, have been arrested, confined to their homes or harassed since the Nobel Prize was awarded Friday.
Although Chinese authorities have shown no signs of releasing the 54-year-old Liu from his 11-year-prison sentence, his wife reported that his food has improved and that authorities are now serving him individually prepared hot meals.