A recent Communist Party circular warning officials against Western values appears to have been challenged from inside the political establishment.
Those who have written the circular "consider the people's legitimate calls for reform as activities by hostile forces and 'dissidents', and [are] thus wrongly estimating and analysing the situation", Yang Tianshi, a senior scholar and adviser, wrote in an essay shared online.
The Central Committee circular, a briefing on the ideological sphere, known as document No9, has caused concern among Chinese liberals. It suggests the Communist Party may have taken a more conservative, authoritarian direction in the first months of its new leadership.
The document has not been published. Its content can only be deduced from reports on party cadre briefings that appeared at the beginning of the month. Most of those were swiftly deleted to avoid public debate.
Cadres should "strengthen the guidance of public opinion, purify the internet's [ sic] environment, convey more positive energy [and] bring more positive voices", the circular read, according to a report on a briefing in Xianyang, Shaanxi .
Yang, a 77-year-old historian, is a member of the Central Literature and History Institute, a body of top academics that advises the State Council.
He shared his essay with an acquaintance who put it online, where it has quickly gained attention.
Yang wrote that those who had written the circular had mistaken calls for more respect for, and better enforcement of, rights guaranteed in the constitution as calls for "Westernisation".
"For some time, people have called for the enactment and implementation of the constitution from 1982, to realise constitutional governance and have even called for the realisation of a 'dream of constitutional governance'," he wrote.
"Many people have made suggestions in newspapers and on the internet, petitioned, jointly signed statements and even unfurled banners on the streets," he wrote. "I think these are all legal, reasonable, legitimate expressions of concern … for the rightful leadership of the Communist Party."
In February, hundreds of intellectuals signed a petition urging China to ratify an international human rights treaty it signed in the 1990s that reiterates some rights guaranteed in the country's constitution.
In recent weeks, several state-run publications have pilloried such calls for public liberties, saying they would lead to chaos and were aimed at copying the West.
"Those who drafted document No9 fail to realise that those who demand the 'protection' and 'implementation' of the constitution refer to the [Chinese] constitution from 1982," Yang wrote. "[They don't want] the American constitution."
"Citizens demand[ing] the protection and implementation of their own constitution - what's wrong with that?"