BEIJING (AP) — In the wee hours of a March morning, a Chinese hotelier wrote a 5,000-word open letter to his country's premier and posted it on social media. The delicate topic: how local regulators capriciously enforce rules and extort bribes. Within days, officials came knocking.
Wu Hai wasn't admonished, though. Instead, he was invited to the inner sanctum offices of China's leadership in Beijing to offer more of his thoughts after his writing caught the attention of Premier Li Keqiang and other senior leaders.
"It was so unexpected," Wu said after returning from his first-ever visit to the secluded Zhongnanhai political compound in the Chinese capital.
In a country where ordinary people often say their voices are never heard and where critics of the government routinely get silenced, harassed and even jailed, Wu's experience seems exceptional: It suggests a leadership that, in its efforts to stamp out corruption and improve government efficiency, is willing to hear unflattering accounts.
"I have come to believe that the Chinese government, like any other government, really cares about what people think and wants to hear different voices," said Wu, who also sits on a political advisory board for a city district in Beijing.
Wu, who owns 65 hotels in more than 20 Chinese cities, was motivated by his desire to fix problems in the country's vast local bureaucracy as the country tries to give private enterprise a more central place in the economy. That aligns him squarely with stated priorities of the central government.
Wu is likely to have been vetted and deemed a friendly critic rather than one who is hostile to the ruling Communist Party, said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at Chinese University in Hong Kong.
"Unlike other critics, Mr. Wu does not question the ruling party's legitimacy," Lam said of Wu's opinions. "It's also possible this is propaganda warfare to show that the authorities are not intolerant but can tolerate criticism."
"I think Premier Li Keqiang is using this example to press home the case to put more pressure on provincial bureaucrats," Lam said.
State media outlets have picked up on the story as way of expressing support for private businessmen and the need to streamline government bureaucracy.
"As they have created social wealth, China's entrepreneurs have made great contributions to China's economic development, but some government officials make the entrepreneurs feel like servants before them," the major business newspaper National Business Daily wrote.
There are reasons to be cautious about being outspoken. More than once in its history, China's communist government has encouraged a bit of open discourse and then cracked down, and Wu's experience comes at a time when appearances suggest the government is going in the other direction.
The Beijing leadership has come under international scrutiny for exerting increasingly tighter ideological controls over Internet discourse and university education. Authorities have rounded up dissident artists, bloggers and activists who do little more than call for officials to disclose their assets. Authorities recently indicted a well-known rights lawyer over online posts that were both satirical and critical of the government.
Wu's article, which he estimates has been read several million times, also contained criticism, both figurative and explicit.
To vent his frustration, Wu used the metaphor of a family to describe the hierarchy of government officials, state-owned enterprises and private companies. Government officials, he said, are like the legitimate children of the prevailing power. State-owned enterprises are the children of favored concubines, and private companies are bastard children birthed by prostitutes.
The private companies "dare not speak, because we need to live," he said. "If we say something that may make a legitimate child feel uncomfortable, we could be chided, jailed, and other legitimate children will torture us to death."
He lauded Beijing for disciplining the legitimate children but said that, despite the stern anti-corruption campaign, they are still misbehaving.
Wu gave examples of local authorities extorting bribes during holidays, fining local businesses without clear guidelines, retaliating against those who speak up, and using power to force private companies to hire favored companies. He did not name any government offenders but took aim at policies and regulations which he said were so vague as to allow for the abuses of power.
"I think the problems are common, and my suggestions help the government," Wu said. "It just so happens that the government itself is pushing for a streamlined bureaucracy, and those writing up rules happen to be eager to learn more about the issues, and I provided the perspectives they did not know but would very much value."
The experience, Wu said, has allowed him to get into closer contact with rule makers. That firmed up his conviction that Beijing is sincere in soliciting input for its drive to streamline the economy.
"I think every voice has the opportunity to be heard," said the hotelier, who also sits on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body.
Voices are heard, it's true. Chinese governments at all levels have employed an army of online monitors to comb through online speech and analyze them, helping government officials gauge public opinions. Beijing also has the authority to ask Internet companies to delete comments and even accounts for speech it deems offensive, and authorities have been paying countless numbers of commentators to post comments that can help swing public opinion in favor of the state.
Earlier this month, Chinese authorities indicted the prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang for his online speech that questioned China's ethnic policies and derided several political figures. Whistle blowers who have turned to social media to expose government corruption often see themselves harassed or jailed for disrupting social order or provoking trouble.
Unlike them, Wu is not considered a threat to the state power, Lam said: "He is not attacking the party rule."
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