Chinese Reformers Petition for Review of Subversion Law
By JIM YARDLEY and CHRIS BUCKLEY
Published: February 1, 2004
EIJING, Sunday, Feb. 1 — A group of prominent Chinese academics, lawyers and liberal reformers made a bold public demand on Sunday for a definition of freedom of expression in China that would clearly establish the extent to which citizens can legally criticize the nondemocratic government.
The group posted a petition on Web sites in China as well as overseas. The petition focused on China's vaguely defined antisubversion law, which the police often invoke to arrest critics of the government, and called for a "judicial interpretation" of the legality of the provision under the Chinese Constitution.
The petition also called for the release of Du Daobin, an Internet essayist who was arrested late last year on subversion charges. Organizers plan to collect signatures on line and to present the petition to the government — in another example of how the Internet is becoming a potent vehicle for mobilizing support for political and legal reform here.
"In recent years, and especially since last year, the Internet has emerged as a forum where intellectuals can defend civic freedoms," said Wang Yi, 30, a law professor in western China who helped organize the petition drive.
The petition is signed by 102 writers, editors, lawyers, philosophers, liberal economists and dissidents. They include Liu Xiaobo, a well-known dissident from the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989; Yu Jie, an essayist and government critic; Liu Junning, a liberal political theorist; and He Weifang, a Beijing law professor and commentator.
The issue of constitutional reform is gaining an increasingly high profile in China in official and intellectual circles. In March, the National People's Congress is expected to ratify a much-touted constitutional amendment establishing the right to private property. The government is also considering an amendment to the Constitution to include "respecting and protecting human rights."
Public awareness of the Chinese Constitution as a supreme law has been growing. Protesters increasingly cite it in making claims on issues of basic rights.
But as China tries to establish itself as a nation ruled by laws, those rights remain largely unfulfilled, as evidenced by Mr. Du's case.
He is a minor government official in central Hubei Province who gained a following for his writings on the Internet, including his support for democracy in Hong Kong. He also wrote an essay calling for the release of a jailed Internet dissident, Liu Di. Ms. Liu was released in November and has signed the current petition.
The authorities arrested Mr. Du in October, and prosecutors are now trying to decide whether enough evidence exists to bring an indictment.
The authorities contend that Mr. Du wanted to topple the government. But Mo Shaoping, the Beijing lawyer representing him, said the provision was so vague that it failed to define boundaries for freedom of speech or limits on criticizing the government.
"Du Daobin maintains that he wasn't trying to subvert or overthrow the government," said Mr. Mo, who did not sign the petition. "His criticisms were well intentioned and constructive."
The petitioners contend that the vagueness of the law is essentially a license for abuse that allows the police to arrest anyone who criticizes the government, regardless of their intent. As a remedy, they are calling on China's highest court, the Supreme People's Court, to review the constitutionality of the provision.
"The main problem with the law is that it's very broadly expressed, and so we need more specific legal definitions," said Mr. He, the Beijing law professor who signed the petition. "But the judiciary has never offered any clear direction."
Petition organizers are trying to tap into the growing influence of China's 80 million Internet users, a number that is rising rapidly. The petition warned that convicting Mr. Du would be an "utterly dangerous precedent" for Internet users.
Mr. Wang, one of the petition organizers, said the petition drive was partly the result of a greater confidence on the part of intellectuals in making such a public stand. He cited several cases over the last year in which the government has responded to petition drives.
Yet asked if he worried about official retribution, he said: "I'm really not sure about the size of the risk. Under a nontransparent legal system, it's a bit like being behind a closed door, and you don't know if the police officer is one meter from your door or a thousand meters away."