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China media criticize dissent case punishment

BEIJING -- Chinese government-controlled newspapers have openly criticized the detention of a village official who called for the end of Communist Party rule, an extraordinary move that some media experts see as a sign that Beijing is granting more leeway on free speech.

The campaign is all the more remarkable because Ren Jianyu, 25, was sentenced to a labor camp for posting online messages that called for the downfall of the party's “dictatorship” — sentiments that would normally mark him out for harsh treatment by China's media, assuming they gave any coverage at all.

But several outlets — including the influential Global Times tabloid, owned by Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, and The Beijing News newspaper — have criticized Ren's two-year sentence and called for more freedom for people to criticize authorities.

“It's worrying that people can still be punished for expressing or writing critical thoughts in modern China,” Yu Jincui wrote in a Global Times commentary last week.

“Being sentenced for negative expressions was a political tradition that prevailed in some countries before the 20th century,” Yu wrote. “It's outdated and goes against today's freedom of speech and rule of law.”

Some free-speech advocates hope the coverage is a sign that Beijing wants to ease social tensions by allowing more public debate, and that this could be a priority of China's incoming new leadership team set to be unveiled next month.

“Somebody high up wants to see these reports happening,” said Doug Young, professor of journalism at Shanghai's Fudan University and author of an upcoming book on the media in China.

“The fact that this is happening, that you see this call for freedom of expression so close to a leadership transition, is unusual,” he added, referring to next month's party congress where Vice President Xi Jinping is set to take over as party leader.

“If you're an optimist, you would see it as a positive sign that the incoming government will make expansion of freedom of speech a priority under the administration of Xi Jinping.”

Ren forwarded photographs of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao online with the words: “Down with the Chinese Communist Party” on them after the July 2011 deadly high-speed train crash near the eastern city of Wenzhou, said Ren's lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, adding that Ren had wanted to criticize the Chinese leadership for the poor official response to the crash.

Ren also forwarded messages that said: “End one-party dictatorship, long live freedom and democracy.” He also posted a photo of Li Keqiang, set to be China's next premier, with the words “Mafia leader” written on it, Pu said.

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