Following revelations that authorities in Wuhan downplayed news of the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak while it was in its early stages, and police cracked down on people spreading “rumors” about the deadly virus, there have been numerous calls for freedom of speech and a relaxation of censorship.
As the outrage threatened to boil over, Beijing quickly dispatched an anti-corruption task force to Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province — the epicenter of the outbreak, with the clear implication that they would come back with some scalps to assuage public anger. At the same time, state media ramped up positive stories about efforts to rein in the outbreak, and Xi himself made his first public appearance related to the virus.
There are signs, however, that the lid will not be so easily put back on the Pandora’s box that Li’s death has opened.
“(The government) has used disease control as a pretext to illegally deprive citizens of their constitutional rights, including the right to free speech, right to freedom of movement, and the right to private property,” the letter said.
In the version published by China Change the letter lists nine signatories, including Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University and one of China’s most prominent jurists.
Multiple copies of the letters are circulating online, and CNN has been unable to confirm the entire list of signatories. Xu Zhangrun did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
“The political life of the nation is in a state of collapse and the ethical core of the system has been rendered hollow,” Xu wrote. “The ultimate concern of China’s polity today and that of its highest leader is to preserve at all costs the privileged position of the Communist Party and to maintain ruthlessly its hold on power.”
Liu’s extreme punishment — and the refusal of authorities to grant him a medical parole until the very last days of his illness — was indicative of how serious a threat Beijing viewed Charter 08 to be.
While many of the demands — both in the recent letters and Charter 08 — are merely for the authorities to respect freedoms supposedly protected by the Chinese constitution, they challenge the fundamental basis of one party rule. While the constitution may guarantee free speech or assembly, all its provisions are seen as subject to Party approval or discretion, something Chinese liberals see as antithetical to the rule of law.
In recent years, and certainly since Xi assumed power in 2013, the ruling Communist Party has moved to increase its control over civil society. This could mean that even though the open letters published this week are far more modest in their demands than Charter 08, they nevertheless risk incurring a major backlash for their signatories.
Since the development of the Great Firewall, the number one target of the censors has always been calls for protests or offline organizing. While the censors have allowed a certain degree of anger over Li Wenliang’s death, and Xi has been careful to channel frustration at officials in Wuhan so it does not bubble over into more sustained dissent, any association with Charter 08 and Hong Kong, even unintentional, may prove to be too much for the authorities to tolerate.
CNN’s Nectar Gan and Alexandra Lin contributed reporting.