Party leaders 'split' over democracy campaign

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2009, 12:00am

Communist Party leaders in Beijing are divided over how to deal with a campaign initiated by liberal mainland scholars calling for greater freedom and direct elections, sources say.

Thousands of intellectuals, activists and scholars have signed their names to support Charter 08, a document calling for civil rights and bold political reforms.

Many people see it as the most important political movement outside the Communist Party for years.

Sources involved in the campaign said some members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Li Changchun and Zhou Yongkang, advocated 'strictly repressing' all the signatories, while party secretary Hu Jintao suggested distinguishing between campaign leaders and the rest.

'Mr Hu said that to punish the leaders would be enough,' a Beijing source said. 'He regarded the rest as 'signers of no threat'.'

Some Guangzhou sources said they also had heard about the division in the political leadership.

'We have known this for months,' said a source who signed the manifesto in December, adding that those who signed it had sensed Beijing's confusion from the very beginning.

Initially, 303 academics, lawyers and liberal writers signed the charter on December 8, claiming that 'one-party dictatorship' had brought repeated tragedy to the nation and vowing to push for greater democracy and freedom on the mainland.

'For at least 10 days you could easily find the charter by inputting the key word into search engines. It was not totally banned until December 20,' the Guangzhou source said.

The source said the 10-day gap was a sign that the Beijing authorities were at a loss as to what to do.

Police could only wait and do nothing while the leadership worked out how to react according to different opinions within the party.

'They are not monolithic,' he said.

By late last week, with about a week to go before the National People's Congress meeting, 8,500 people had signed the charter worldwide, making it one of the mainland's most influential political campaigns in nearly a decade, the source said.

A Beijing source said police chiefs from different provinces reported to the Ministry of Public Security this month that they had finished investigating the initial 303 signatories.

The Guangzhou source confirmed that he was politely invited to meals with police three times in a week as part of the investigations. 'The police asked me where I got the charter, who I passed it on to, what I thought about it and why I signed,' he said. The police showed him the charter with the words 'one-party dictatorship' highlighted, he added.

'They seemed to have paid no attention to the 19 suggestions we made calling for future political reform. They just said the highlighted words showed our intention to overthrow the mainland government and its political system.'

Liu Xiaobo, the charter's main advocate and a student leader during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, is the only signatory to be detained so far, and the others who put their names to the document are still living and working as usual.

However, the source said that all the initial 303 signatories had been told by police not to discuss the issue publicly. 'I heard that some Beijing signatories had refused interviews. We think the government wants to play down the issue eventually, without intensifying conflict,' he said.

Sources said mainland authorities were treating the campaign seriously and had launched a major investigation into its origins.

Another source, regarded by the public as a liberal academic, said he had been questioned by police. 'They asked my opinion about the charter and why I did not sign it,' he said.