Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Halts Debate on Reform

BEIJING -- After several months of permitting China's intellectuals the freedom to call for political reform, ponder far-reaching revisions to the constitution and consider changes in the official history of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Communist Party has ordered a halt to such debate, and security personnel have begun harassing leading academics, economists and legal scholars, sources say.

In the past weeks, party organizations, research institutes and universities have been instructed to stop all conferences and suppress all essays about those three topics, according to sources within the Communist Party. The new instructions spell out these "three unmentionables," while the Propaganda Ministry has informed China's news media that there are additional subjects that can no longer be broached, the sources said.

Participants in a June conference on constitutional reform have been followed, interrogated or instructed to stop speaking about the issues, even trailed and harassed by security personnel.

The effort to muffle debate about the three issues appears to be part of a broader struggle between former Communist Party boss and President Jiang Zemin and his successor, Hu Jintao, Chinese sources and analysts said. Jiang and his allies, the sources said, generally oppose any political loosening. By contrast, Hu has portrayed himself as a friend of reformers and other progressives, attempting to gain their support in his struggle against Jiang.

Hu was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party last November and became China's president in March. But on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the party's most powerful body, Jiang surrounded Hu with his old allies and kept one of China's most powerful positions, head of the Central Military Commission.

This spring, both sides attempted to use the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, to their advantage. Jiang and his supporters followed the party's traditional tactic: denying there was a crisis. But by late April, Hu and his main ally Premier Wen Jiabao forced the party to cooperate with the World Health Organization and fight the disease. Hu and Wen also fired the health minister, a Jiang loyalist, and the newly appointed mayor of Beijing.

On July 25, the Workers' Daily published a call by Su Liqing, a senior official in China's government-controlled labor union, for direct elections of local union bosses by factory workers. This proposal had not been broached since before the Tiananmen crackdown. Also, a group of five senior party elders wrote letters urging Jiang to step down from all his positions. And independent intellectuals began raising the idea of revising the official history of Tiananmen.

The struggle has also stretched into the news media, which in recent months has been full of conflicting signals. Following an explosion of groundbreaking reports during the SARS epidemic, the Propaganda Ministry, led by a Jiang loyalist, has issued a series of circulars banning reports on a variety of topics.

China is planning to revise its constitution next year. Chinese sources close to that committee said there are two main additions to the constitution being debated. One is a clause protecting private property. The other is a clause enshrining the "Three Represents," a modification of Marxist theory developed by Jiang that says the Communist Party should represent the interests of all the people, including businesses, rather than just the working class.

Writing the Three Represents into the constitution would give Jiang a status almost equivalent to Communist China's two other towering figures, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, strengthening Jiang's allies. But at the June conference a statement was issued saying the constitution should be free from all ideology -- a direct slap at Jiang. "He might have gone too far," one participant said. "But we all agreed with him."