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Hu-Jiang power struggles enter cyberspace
By Tian Jing and Feng Liang

HONG KONG - China's power struggles have moved from the corridors of Zhongnanhai and the pages of influential publications to the Internet.

Censorship is second-nature to Chinese authorities, but surprisingly, at least two highly critical websites appear to be sanctioned, despite - or because of - their harsh criticism of official corruption and malfeasance. There is widespread speculation that reformist President Hu Jintao is encouraging freedom of speech in cyberspace in order to build public support and consensus for his views and to discredit his opponents. He has been pushing greater democracy, accountability and transparency within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the Internet may well be helping him. His major opponent is former president Jiang Zemin and his Shanghai Clique who resist the idea of discipline within the party and prefer traditional Chinese autocracy.

This is reminiscent of the the late 1970s, when reformer Deng Xiaoping - just rehabilitated but opposed by conservatives - encouraged freedom of speech briefly at Beijing's "Democracy Wall", where anyone could write "big character posters" that discredited Deng's hardline Maoist opponents. They frequently presented petitions for redress of wrongs. When the criticism became too pointed and writers started demanding democracy and complaining about emperors in general, however, Deng shut it down. It had served its purpose.

Fast forward 25 years and something similar may be happening now, in cyberspace.

As reported exclusively by Asia Times Online's Chinese-language website, a mysterious new website entitled "China Petition Network" ( has crept into the cyber world and acquired a public following. It describes itself as a "public sentiment early-warning mechanism" based on the requirements of the top CCP echelon to be kept informed of public opinion. It also says that its establishment heralds "a milestone in the course of democratic supervision". The idea is apparently democratic supervision of the communist party and its responsiveness to the wishes of the people.

A similar website is Media Supervision of China ( ), arguing that the traditional media watchdogs have failed the people and a new outlet is necessary via the Internet. (Yulun means "public opinions" in Chinese.)

Chinese themselves and China watchers say that a powerful senior, even paramount leader, apparently is pulling the cyber strings, allowing the websites to flourish without censure, sanction or censorship. Websites have been shut down for far less. There is speculation that it could be President Hu, who is using the websites to further his agenda for the need for genuine party democracy.

The new websites and the Asia Times Online report in Chinese last week apparently have spurred the official vox populi media to pay more attention to the the concept of popular supervision of officials via the Internet. A July 13 editorial by the official Xinhua News Agency complained that a good many governmental websites are nothing more than "Homepage shows", and it urged them to improve the Internet civil services that they offer. A second Xinhua story the next day commented on monitoring corruption within governments via the Internet. On July 15, another party organ, the People's Daily, created a column in its online homepage in order to publish mild comments by China's politically energized "netizens".

Jiang stifled online complaints
In a sharp contrast, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin stifled online complaints and opinions throughout his decade-long tenure from 1993 to 2002. For instance, Huang Qi and his wife set up a website in 1999 to help locate the people missing since the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, when soldiers opened fire on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators. Later, some visitors to the site posted harsh messages denouncing official corruption and supporting the June 4 pro-democracy student movement; Beijing has ruled the peaceful protest a counterrevolutionary rebellion and riot. On June 3, 2000, the website owner was arrested, then convicted of sedition 11 months later and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. That was the Internet in China under Jiang, who still retains power as head of the party's powerful Central Military Commission. He is China's commander-in-chief.

Since taking over from Jiang, President Hu has taken a more lenient and humanitarian stance. Today the political divergence between the two is rumored to be gaping and getting wider. If Hu is behind the new websites, he may have learned this masterstroke from Deng Xiaoping, who had supported Hu and elevated him to political heights.

In the 1970s, Hua Guofeng - then CCP chairman, premier and commander-in-chief - adhered literally to the nation's founder, Mao Zedong. "We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions chairman Mao gave," Hua insisted. But Deng, who later led the country into economic reform and opening-up, stuck to the belief that practice or pragmatism was the key criterion of truth. "Seek truth from facts," Deng said. "Practice is the only standard to test truth." In 1979, Deng put the popular democratic outpourings to good use and successfully toppled Hua from the supreme leadership.

However, Deng took a U-turn to tighten speech control later, when leaders of China's fledgling democracy movement were harassed and jailed, including Wei Jingsheng who called for democratic reform. It is hoped by China's reformers that today's democratic forces on the Internet will not suffer the same treatment.

In late 2003, charges finally were dropped against Liu Di, a university student who commented critically about politics online under the name of "stainless steel rat", and she was allowed to resume her education after more than 12 months' detention. Last June, Du Daobin, a cyber writer, was convicted of sedition and given a three-year suspended sentence, with a warning that she could still serve a year in jail. The two surprising judgments are believed to result from pressure from above, the highest circles of power in Beijing.

Invisible hand behind outspoken websites
These outspoken websites exposing authorities' malpractices or corruption-related crimes have received considerable public attention. Surprisingly, despite all the revelations and accusations, they so far have been spared any ban or known censorship - unusual leniency in China where freedom of expression is extremely limited.

The China Petition Network (CPN) vows on its homepage to establish an early warning system alerting leaders to issues involving social stability and popular opinion. Most important, it says it will "endeavor to supervise officials at all levels throughout the country and their governance". In China, the right of the people to govern is guaranteed by the law and granted to every citizen. Still, the people's supervision of the authorities is considered offensive by some communist cadres, officially termed "diligent public servants of the people". This right is often flouted and remains largely on paper.

Despite its bold opinions, access to CPN remains smooth and unrestricted. By law, any website deemed by the authorities as "harmful" and "posing threats to the country's stability" can be blocked. And some have been blocked. All of this gives rise to the belief in an invisible hand protecting these websites. CPN even reassures petitioners that it can seal all petition and complaint letters and pass them on to the Committee of Discipline Inspection (CDI) of the CCP for further investigation. The CDI is the communist party's most authoritative watchdog agency for officials and party members.

CPN's website lists cases involving egregious official breaches of duty and corruption. It asserts that China's grass roots, the masses, are aware of those illegal and unethical practices long before the legal enforcement departments, whether of the state or the communist party. What these official watchdog agencies and investigators lack is an effective channel to submit their findings to the authorities, and consequently investigations are protracted and many cases never go anywhere. CPN claims that the media's supervision of the establishment is ineffective, though the traditional media is usually considered the watchdog by local governments and higher officials. Because of its failures to represent the people's complaints and bring about justice, CPN says, the country needs a new channel to report popular concerns to higher authorities for prompt response, investigation and resolution.

A similar website called Media Supervision of China also became the talk of the town. Its most controversial report detailed what it called the malfeasance of Li Xin, vice mayor of Jining City in eastern China's Shangdong province. Li was accused of corruption, money laundry and retaliation against a woman who publicized his illegal activities. After the coverage of this website, Li is believed to have been suspended from office, but the disposition of the case was not immediately known.

The police in Jining have blocked access to the website a few times, and some attribute this to the intervention of higher authorities. The country's media and propaganda sector is still steered by the conservative Li Changchun, member of the standing committee of the Politburo, the party's most powerful decision-making body. However, the website has been back online since early July, leading observers to wonder whether its resumption online since early July leaves observers to wonder whether this is a sign of the power struggles within Zhongnanhai.

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Jul 20, 2004

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