Critic leaves Beijing red-faced
By Verna Yu

HONG KONG - As China prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of communist rule on October 1, the last thing its leaders need is an embarrassing reminder of where the regime is perceived to have failed over the past six decades.

An article which boldly criticizes China's one-party rule - alleged to be a transcript of speeches by former reformist leader Wan Li - surfaced recently, and it has caused a stir. Wan, 93, was chairman of the National People's Congress from 1988 to 1993 and is said to have sympathized with the student-led pro-democracy Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 that were suppressed on June 4 of that year.

The article denounces the ruling Chinese Communist Party for failing to live up to the promises of freedom and democracy it made to the people before it came to power in 1949.

The then-underground Communist Party, suppressed by an authoritarian Kuomintang (KMT) regime, attracted a following of millions of idealistic young people, many of whom sacrificed their lives in the fight for a new China.

"Our party at that time made promises to the Chinese people that it would establish a free, democratic and independent country," the author said in the article.

"Tens of millions of people died for New China ... why did they make this sacrifice? They came one after another, taking the place of fallen comrades, because the Communist Party had established goals and ideals."

The fact that an article so critical of the government has been circulated widely on the Internet has worried Chinese leaders, prompting a rare official response. The Hong Kong China News Agency - a semi-official mouthpiece of Beijing - dismissed it as a "fake" and any appearances it made on blogs and websites in China were promptly removed by censors.

The government has reasons to fear the impact of such a critical essay, whoever its real author may be. Against the backdrop of rising unemployment, a widening rich-poor gap and widespread social discontent, it would not welcome such a candid appraisal of its performance.

"The People's Republic of China does not have a modern political party system ... even now, although 60 years have gone by, a truly competitive system of elections has not been established," the article says.

The author laments that 60 years on, China is still under one-party rule and the state is still regarded as "the party's state". He also lambastes the party for clinging onto power in the government as well as over the military - even now, he says, the army is the party's army, not the country's army.

"Is 'no change' a good thing in politics? Or a kind of political inertia? Or a kind of political stagnation?" the article asks.

The author also criticizes the party for its penchant for self-glorifying slogans while white-washing its past mistakes. He argued that the 60th anniversary should be an opportunity to reflect and draw lessons from the past.

"I don't agree with formulations such as '60 Glorious Years' and '50 Glorious Years'. They are not true. The hard times of the 'Great Leap Forward' [in the late 1950s] lasted for three or four years. The chaos of the 'Cultural Revolution' [1966-1976) lasted 10 years. Those years cannot be called glorious."

Opinions are divided on whether these are Wan's words, but one thing that most critics agree on is that the author or speaker appears to be a party veteran who has in-depth inside knowledge of the party.

Critics say the true identity of the author is beside the point. What is more noteworthy is that the article has been widely circulated on the Internet and that it has struck a chord with ordinary Chinese.

"[The author] dared to speak the truth and candidly analyzed and criticized the problems under the Communist Party's rule," said Peng Di, an 89-year-old retired journalist who joined the underground Communist Party in the early 1940s. " ... so it's no surprise that it has sparked a strong response and challenged people's thinking."

Bao Tong, who was the most senior Communist Party official to be jailed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, said the article accurately summarized the party's mistakes over the past six decades into three major points: Chinese people are not able to express their independent views; they cannot participate in the political process; and they are unable to supervise the governing party.

"Indeed, these three [points] reflect the helplessness of ordinary people in this country's politics," he wrote in a Hong Kong magazine.

Du Guang, a former director of the Research Office of the Central Party School, said the value of the article was in saying what many ordinary people wanted to say but did not have the courage. "It represents many hopes and expectations," he said. "It has spelled out a lot of what ordinary people dare not say."

The author might have put forward his opinion in the hope of sparking debate on political reform and pushing China towards a more democratic society, but critics doubt it will trigger any significant reaction among the ruling elite.

However, the article has provoked strong feelings of discontent among Chinese people.

"You [the party] have promised so much - 60 years have passed, yet how much of those have been materialized?" said former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Zhang Lifan said.

Verna Yu is a Hong Kong-based journalist.