BEIJING – A group of “princelings,” children of China’s political elite, has quietly urged the Communist Party leadership to release jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo on parole to improve the country’s international image, two sources said.
Liu’s release is not high on the agenda of the party, which is trying to push through painful economic, judicial and military reforms amid the most extensive crackdown on corruption in over six decades, the sources with ties to the leadership said, requesting anonymity.
But the back channel push for Liu’s parole shows that a debate is taking place among leaders about damage to China’s reputation caused by his jailing. It also suggests the ruling elite are not monolithic when it comes to views on dissent.
Liu, 58, a veteran dissident involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests crushed by the army, was jailed for 11 years in 2009 on subversion charges for organizing a petition urging an end to one-party rule. He won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
“For many princelings, the pros of freeing Liu Xiaobo outweigh the cons,” one of the sources said. “Liu Xiaobo will definitely be freed early. The question is when.”
He is eligible for parole after serving half his term.
The sources declined to say how big the group of princelings was, but said most were second- or third-generation, born in the 1960s or 1970s, and some were close to President Xi Jinping.
“The biggest worry is hostile forces using Liu Xiaobo once he is freed,” the second source said.
Asked how the message was relayed to the leadership, the source said: “We have our channels . . . the topic has come up many times during our gatherings.”
The sources declined to identify the princelings or say if they had written or spoken to Xi or went through his aides or family members.
The Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Justice and State Council Information Office did not respond to faxed requests for comment.
Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, has been put under effective house arrest since shortly after her husband won the Nobel Prize, ostensibly to prevent her from talking to the media, and could not be reached.
Liu Xia was admitted to hospital in February after police refused to let her seek medical help abroad.
Liu Xiaobo is considered a moderate dissident, but the Communist Party is obsessed by anyone or anything it perceives as a threat to social stability.
Critics say Chinese leaders are insecure about what they feel are Western efforts to undermine one-party rule by pushing democratization.
Xi, despite being the son of a reform-minded former vice premier, has shown no sign of wanting to loosen the political system. He said in Belgium last month that China had experimented with multiparty democracy and that it did not work.
China’s human rights record has been a thorn in its side since the army crackdown on student-led demonstrations for democracy centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, which attracts endless opprobrium abroad.
The government has stepped up pressure on the rights community ahead of the 25th anniversary of the crackdown, detaining several leading dissidents and activists, including lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and journalist Gao Yu.
Xi’s administration has also clamped down on Internet critics and tightened curbs on journalists in what rights groups call the worst suppression of free expression in recent years.
Yet the purge of retired domestic security czar Zhou Yongkang could be conducive to Liu’s release, the sources said.
Zhou is under virtual house arrest and under investigation for corruption. He had little sympathy for dissidents and during his five-year watch government spending on domestic security eclipsed the defense budget.
“Zhou Yongkang had recommended imprisoning Liu Xiaobo,” the second source said, adding that this could be an opportunity to undo Zhou’s deeds.
“But even if Liu Xiaobo is freed, the government will not (politically) rehabilitate June 4 soon,” the source said, referring to the Tiananmen crackdown.