Cao Siyuan should know. His phone is bugged and his movements restricted
The mainland's new leadership is sending mixed signals on political reform, one of China's most prominent intellectuals has said, leading social commentators to revise earlier estimates of the pace of change in light of current crackdowns.
Cao Siyuan, a recognised proponent of political reform and privatisation in China, said that after six months of permissiveness, authorities were tightening the screws on public expression.
He does not need to look far for proof. For the first time in a decade, security personnel were following him and had bugged his phone, he said. His speaking engagements had been cancelled under various pretexts, he added.
He said the surveillance began at the end of July, about six weeks after he organised a seminar on constitutional reform held in Qingdao.
The change of leadership had inspired hopes that - unlike previous amendments made behind closed doors - the current one would be more open in discussion and responsive to public demands, he said.
But it was clear from the first preparatory meeting that the scope of change would be limited. National People's Congress Chairman Wu Banggu called the current constitution a 'good' one that needed only minor adjustments to meet the changing times.
A senior academic who spoke at the seminar said publicising the seminar on the internet and collecting signatures endorsing an amendment proposal had crossed the line of what was allowed.
'The authorities are wary of any kind of mobilisation. You can talk freely in small or large groups, but trying to mobilise support for a cause is forbidden.'
With his personal freedom of speech and movement curtailed, Mr Cao doubts whether the new leaders are any different from their predecessors in wielding control through the state security apparatus.
'I don't think we can attribute all this muzzling of public voices to a shadowy faction allied to the conservative old leaders,' Mr Cao said.
A veteran editor agreed. 'The new leadership has come under tremendous pressure from the public to deliver changes which it is not capable of,' he said. 'They need to slam on the brakes from time to time.'
A 54-part television series, Marching Towards the Republic, was banned from being repeated because its themes of republicanism and constitutional reform had found a deeper resonance than the government had expected.
Journalists who attended the conference said left-leaning intellectuals strongly opposed raising the protection of private property to the same 'sacred and inviolate' level as for state property. Open debates could quickly polarise the issue, putting the government on the spot to 'defend the indefensible', or reconcile many contradictions inherent in the current hybrid system, they said.
In missives sent by the Communist Party's Central Publicity Department, open discussion of constitutional reform was said to 'confuse the public', thereby raising false expectations, they said.
The senior scholar who attended the seminar said the protracted process of liberalising and tightening of control was likely to continue for another year or so.
If the leaders did not want to travel down the path of the reformists Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, they must proceed cautiously, he said.