BEIJING May 11 A group of "princelings",
children of China's political elite, has quietly urged the
Communist Party leadership to release jailed Nobel laureate Liu
Xiaobo on parole to improve the country's international image,
two sources said.
Liu's release is not high on the agenda of the party, which
is trying to push through painful economic, judicial and
military reforms amid the most extensive crackdown on corruption
in over six decades, the sources with ties to the leadership
said, requesting anonymity.
But the back channel push for Liu's parole shows that a
debate is taking place among leaders about damage to China's
reputation caused by his jailing. It also suggests the ruling
elite are not monolithic when it comes to views on dissent.
Liu, 58, a veteran dissident involved in the 1989 Tiananmen
Square pro-democracy protests crushed by the army, was jailed
for 11 years in 2009 on subversion charges for organising a
petition urging an end to one-party rule. He won the Nobel Peace
Prize the following year.
"For many princelings, the pros of freeing Liu Xiaobo
outweigh the cons," one of the sources said. "Liu Xiaobo will
definitely be freed early. The question is when."
He is eligible for parole after serving half his term.
The sources declined to say how big the group of princelings
was, but said most were second- or third-generation born in the
1960s or 1970s and some were close to President Xi Jinping.
"The biggest worry is hostile forces using Liu Xiaobo once
he is freed," the second source told Reuters.
Asked how the message was relayed to the leadership, the
source said: "We have our channels ... the topic has come up
many times during our gatherings."
The sources declined to identify the princelings or say if
they had written or spoken to Xi or went through his aides or
The Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Justice and State Council
Information Office did not respond to faxed requests for
Liu's wife, Liu Xia, has been put under effective house
arrest since shortly after her husband won the Nobel prize,
ostensibly to prevent her from talking to the media, and could
not be reached.
Liu Xia was admitted to hospital in February after police
refused to let her seek medical help abroad.
Liu Xiaobo is considered a moderate dissident, but the
Communist Party is obsessed by anyone or anything it perceives
as a threat to social stability.
Critics say Chinese leaders are insecure about what they
feel are Western efforts to undermine one-party rule by pushing
President Xi, despite being the son of a reform-minded
former vice premier, has shown no sign of wanting to loosen the
political system. He said in Belgium last month that China had
experimented with multi-party democracy and that it did not
China's human rights record has been a thorn in its side
since the army crackdown on student-led demonstrations for
democracy centred on Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989,
which attracts endless opprobrium abroad.
SUPPRESSION OF EXPRESSION
The government has stepped up pressure on the rights
community ahead of the 25th anniversary of the crackdown,
detaining several leading dissidents and activists, including
lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and journalist Gao Yu.
Xi's administration has also clamped down on Internet
critics and tightened curbs on journalists in what rights groups
call the worst suppression of free expression in recent years.
Yet the purge of retired domestic security tsar Zhou
Yongkang could be conducive to Liu's release, the sources said.
Zhou is under virtual house arrest and under investigation
for corruption. He had little sympathy for dissidents and during
his five-year watch government spending on domestic security
eclipsed the defence budget.
"Zhou Yongkang had recommended imprisoning Liu Xiaobo," the
second source said, adding that this could be an opportunity to
undo Zhou's deeds.
"But even if Liu Xiaobo is freed, the government will not
(politically) rehabilitate June 4 soon," the source said,
referring to the Tiananmen crackdown.
Liu's lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said that any decision on
releasing Liu would be political, not legal.
Maya Wang, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said there
have been sustained efforts from within China to get Liu
released, but that she was not optimistic.
"According to Chinese law he would have to admit guilt
first. Since he didn't, the likelihood of that happening is
rather low," Wang said.
Despite Beijing's crackdown on dissent, there have been
nuanced changes to China's policy towards the 1989 protests.
Taiwanese song writer Hou Dejian, who defected to China in
1983 and was deported seven years later for staging a hunger
strike with Liu and two others in support of student protesters
on the eve of the Tiananmen crackdown, set foot in China in 2006
for the first time in 16 years.
Hou's return and the recent release from detention of two
outspoken bloggers - Xue Manzi and Wang Gongquan - have raised
hopes the government may show leniency towards Liu.
In another sign of possible tolerance, President Xi approved
publication in China last year of the Chinese version of "Deng
Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" by Harvard academic
Erza Vogel, multiple sources said.
The book was the first unofficial account of the crackdown
by a foreign academic to be published in China.
In yet another sign, "democracy movement" was dropped last
year from a government blacklist of "hostile forces", three
independent sources said. But the security apparatus continues
to put dissidents and bereaved families of victims under house
arrest ahead of politically sensitive dates.
In a rare move, Chen Ziming, who was sentenced to 13 years
in prison as one of two "black hands" behind the 1989 protests,
was allowed to go to the United States in January for medical
treatment and to receive a human rights award.
The 1989 protests had initially been labelled
"counter-revolutionary", or subversive, but have since been
watered down to a "political disturbance".
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Maxim Duncan and
Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie)