Gabrielle Jaffe freelance journalist China Beijing

Liu Xia was filmed in her house as activists pushed past the guards Credit: Hu Jia/AFP/Getty Images

China faces the prospect of “violent revolution” if the Government fails to implement political reform, a group of prominent intellectuals is warning six weeks after the country’s change of leadership.

The call, from 73 of China’s leading scholars, came as dramatic footage emerged yesterday of activists pushing past security officials to reach Liu Xia, the wife of the Nobel Prizewinning dissident Liu Xiaobo.

In a pointed open letter, the academics warn: “If reforms to the system urgently needed by Chinese society keep being frustrated and stagnate without progress, then … China will again miss the opportunity for peaceful reform, and slip into the turbulence and chaos of violent revolution.”

Drafted by Zhang Qianfan, a Law Professor at Peking University, the letter has garnered signatures from such prominent figures as Zhang Sizhi, a lawyer who is known in China as “the conscience of the legal world” and is best known abroad as the man who defended Mao Zedong’s widow at her 1980 trial. Other well-known signatories include Hu Xingdou, a noted economist at the Beijing Institute of Technology, and Jiang Ping, the former dean of the Chinese University of Political Science and Law.

The letter was circulated on the internet but was quickly removed from Chinese news sites, and links to it have been removed from Mr Zhang’s profile on the microblog Weibo.Entitled “An Initiative on Reform Consensus”, it has echoes of Charter 08, a manifesto published in 2008 calling for the protection of human rights and an end to one-party rule. The main author of that manifesto, Liu Xiaobo, was arrested on charges of subversion and sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in December 2009.

In a separate development Hu Jia, one of China’s leading dissidents, broke through a security cordon to enter the apartment of Mr Liu’s wife, who has been kept under house arrest since her husband won the peace prize. In a video clip of the confrontation, which was posted on YouTube yesterday, a security official is shown telling Mr Hu and two other activists that it will not be possible for them to see Ms Liu. In response, the three force their way past, saying: “Who are you to tell us it’s not possible?”

Although the petition, signed by the 73 academics last week, raises the spectre of violent revolution, the demands made are not as radical as those found in Liu Xiaobo’s 2008 charter. The signatories to the latest letter urge China’s new leaders to rule according to the country’s constitution. In particular, the letter underlines the Government’s duty to protect freedom of speech, the press and the right to demonstrate, to deepen market reform and to allow for an independent judiciary.

These advocates of reform may have been encouraged by signals sent out by Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, who succeeded Hu Jintao as General Secretary of the Communist Party in November.
Commentators have noted Mr Xi’s easy-going style compared with his predecessors and his decision to do away with red carpets for officials.

He has been quoted in the state press saying: “The Government earnestly wants to study the issues that are being brought up, and wants to perfect the market economy system … by deepening reform, and resolve the issues by strengthening rule of law.”

Judged by actions, the signals sent out by the new government have been mixed. An apparent easing of internet searching restrictions, during which it was possible to search Chinese microblogs for the names of top officials for the first time in months, was followed by legislation that critics say will discourage free commenting online by requiring real-name registration for internet users.

Similar hopes that Mr Hu would prove to be a reformer, which were aired when he first took office, were later dashed by years of stagnation on political reform, a period that has come to be known by many as the “lost decade”.

First appeared on The Times on January 1, 2013.