Walking the tightrope of dissent in China

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 03: Police officers on motorized vehicles patrol at Tiananmen Square during the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on March 3, 2015 in Beijing, China. The Chinese People's Political And Consultative Conference open at the Great Hall of the People is due to discuss economic and social development. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Lintao Zhang, Getty Images

BEIJING -- 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."

But it all depends who the criticism is coming from.

An obscure Chinese artist was detained after posting a humorous portrait of President Xi Jinping online, his wife said Thursday.

Judy Zhu said police accused her husband, Dai Jianyong, of "creating a disturbance" after detaining him Tuesday near their Shanghai home.

Dai is known for posting eclectic photos on social media, including some showing himself and others scrunching up their lips and eyes. Dai posted images of Xi with the same expression while wearing a moustache.

Some online commentators have compared the Xi portrait to Adolf Hitler, although Dai's Instagram image has much broader moustache than the small, square-shaped, "toothbrush moustache" associated with Hitler and Charlie Chaplin.

Dai faces up to five years in prison if convicted. Shanghai police didn't answer phone calls Thursday.

Xi's clampdown has also ensnared citizen activists who have posted eyewitness video and other information deemed embarrassing to authorities.

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."