Former aide to Mao urges democratization

To avoid collapse, China must embrace reforms, Li asserts


BEIJING - A one-time secretary to Mao Tse-tung has published a sweeping call for political change in a Beijing magazine, warning that China must embrace democratic politics and free speech to avoid stagnation and possible collapse.

"Only with democratization can there be modernization," the retired official, Li Rui, said. "This has been a global tide since the 20th century, especially the Second World War, and those who join it will prosper while those who resist will perish."

Li, 85, a longtime advocate of faster political liberalization, has been held at arm's length by party leaders. But his status as a confidant to Mao and as a pugnacious critic of conservatives inside the Communist Party has given him a degree of protection from censorship and a large readership.

The publication of his latest article in China Chronicle, a magazine widely read by party officials, is the latest sign of growing demands for open discussion of political reform.

Li's call to action comes at a sensitive time, with many officials and academics here waiting to see if China's new leaders, installed at a party congress in November, will consider a substantial relaxation of one-party rule in coming years.

The January issue of China Chronicle features Li's speech to delegates at that congress. In the article, he bluntly criticizes the Communist Party's resistance to political change and warns that China's stability might be imperiled by further delay. "The key is reforming an aged political system that is obsolescent, and speeding up the development of democratic politics so the country can truly embark on a course of lasting political stability," he said.

In recent official announcements, Communist Party leaders have said the party must strengthen internal debate and make the selection of officials more competitive, but they have not shown signs of contemplating major change.

By contrast, Li challenged China's leaders to lead the way with major reforms starting at the top.

"For the country to democratize, we must first implement democratization of the party; otherwise everything will be hollow," he said. "And the party's democratization must start from the center - at every level starting from the top leader - otherwise it will also be hollow."

Criticizing the censorship exercised by the Propaganda Department, Li said, "Freedom of speech, especially freedom of publication, is a citizen's most fundamental right, and to swiftly and effectively bring abuse of government power under scrutiny, it must be fully protected."

Li has been a party member since 1937. In the late 1950s, he was Mao Tse-tung's secretary, until he criticized the deadly excesses of Mao's attempt to realize Communism; he was later imprisoned. During the 1980s, he was an ally of the ousted party chief Hu Yaobang and became a leading critic of the Three Gorges Dam.

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