US diplomat praises Chinese premier's reform talk

AP News
Posted: Oct 19, 2010 2:06 AM
US diplomat praises Chinese premier's reform talk

The American ambassador to China on Tuesday praised a top leader's calls for greater political reform and rejected a suggestion that the U.S. should engage less with Beijing because it represses dissidents and censors information.

U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman said during a town hall meeting broadcast live online that he was heartened by a recent speech by Premier Wen Jiabao in which he spoke positively about expanding democratic rights and freedom of speech.

"There's a dynamic of change that is occurring here," Huntsman said in response to an online viewer's question about whether U.S. engagement with China should be scaled back because of Beijing's slow pace of political reform, which drew renewed attention this month when imprisoned Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Huntsman said that he has observed a freer flow of information in China than in the past, as well as positive signals from top leaders such as Wen.

"It's hard to know exactly where it goes or what it means to democracy as defined by Americans," Huntsman said. "But in terms of the level of mobility, the flexibility, having a premier come out recently and talk about freedom and democracy in terms that I've never heard before ... Something is happening here that is quite interesting."

During a speech in August, Wen called for improved rule of law and political reforms, saying that without it, China could lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring.

Wen called for guaranteed democratic rights and "the creation of conditions to allow the people to criticize and supervise the government."

It remains unclear whether such talk could lead to any concrete change in the authoritarian government's actions.

The Chinese constitution guarantees free speech, but activists who publicly question the Communist Party's monopoly on power are routinely harassed and jailed.

Huntsman said he has been surprised by the amount of open discussion in the Chinese Internet space and by candid conversations he has had with college students on Chinese campuses, contrasting them to the tight controls of the past, when even private discussions about sensitive political topics were forbidden.

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"I can't imagine the kinds of conversations that I have on college campuses today with young kids taking place 20, 30, 40 years ago," he said.

Despite tight web censorship, Huntsman noted that Chinese bloggers manage to share information online and debate politically sensitive issues, including Liu Xiaobo's recent Nobel award.

"Although blocked from time to time, messages still get through ... They're out there pushing the envelope in ways that never would have been imagined in years past," he said. "Now where this goes and what it all means in terms of further loosening up, I am not in a position to be able to say."

"The important thing is that we stay engaged and keep our communication alive and well," he said.

Beijing responded angrily to Liu being awarded the prize and has accused the Nobel committee of using the award to undermine China's growing influence.