More than 70 prominent Chinese scholars and lawyers have urged the country's new Communist Party leaders to undertake moderate political reforms including separating the party from government, though they avoid any mention of ending one-party rule.
The petition drafted by Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan calls on the party to rule according to the constitution, protect freedom of speech, encourage private enterprise and allow for an independent judicial system. It also calls for the people to be able to elect their own representatives without interference from the Communist Party.
Zhang said there is an urgent need for change to better address the widespread problems the country faces, such as social inequity, abuse of government powers and corruption.
"China runs the risk of revolution and chaos if it does not change," Zhang said.
The document echoes some of the requests made in Charter 08, a 2008 manifesto that made an unusually direct call for an end to single-party rule and other democratic reforms. The manifesto landed its lead architect, dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, in prison for inciting subversion — an 11-year term he is still serving.
The petition, released on Christmas Day, adopts a milder tone, asking the party leadership to rule within existing laws.
"It is indeed mild," Zhang said Wednesday. "We hope it can be accepted by the government and will kick off conversations between the government and the people and among the public."
China's communist leaders have tolerated no political challenges to their authority since the military crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Many dissidents have been harassed into inactivity, imprisoned or exiled.
The petition, made public 40 days after the party installed its new leadership for the next five years, is the latest effort by Chinese intellectuals to push for political reform in a country that many believe is in urgent need of change but also has become more divided. Zhang said he wants to build consensus among people from various factions with often conflicting views.
"Though the people are disgusted by many social injustices, they are yet to have consensus on how to reform the system that creates the injustices, and that has divided and weakened the drive for reform from the people," reads the petition in its opening lines.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did not comment on the petition during a routine briefing but said China does not suppress media freedom.
But by mid-afternoon Wednesday, the petition had been scrubbed off Zhang Qianfan's profile on the popular microblog site, Sina Weibo.
Beijing-based independent scholar Zhang Lifan is one of the signees. Though he is less optimistic that China's ruling party will initiate political change, he is not giving up. "We are treating a dead horse as if it were still alive," said Zhang, referring to the prospect of political reform.
It is important for the public to let its will be known, said Zhang, who is not related to the Peking University professor. "We'd rather have reform instead of revolution, because that would cost the least," said Zhang, who had also signed Charter 08.
Another signatory is the 85-year-old eminent attorney and human rights advocate Zhang Sizhi, known among Chinese lawyers as "the conscience of the legal world." Zhang said the petition's suggestions would not be unfamiliar to the country's leaders.
"The content of the letter is not new to the country's rulers. They are all clear about it. The question is whether they will take action or not," Zhang Sizhi said. "I can only hope so."
The petition is too mild for some in the dissident community who noted that it does not call for the release of political prisoners such as Liu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison.
Hong Kong-based Chinese free-speech activist Wen Yunchao said the requests made in the petition were sound but the style in which it was written was "too subservient."
"It's like they are slaves, kneeling there and writing it," Wen said. He said the proposed changes should have been stated more directly.
Wen said the petition wrongly interprets a report released by Communist Party after a recent conclave as indicating the central leadership's resolve to push forward political reforms. "The problem is that these are utter lies," Wen said. "I think that for them to raise their requests in this way is a very terrible thing."