SHORTLY before the annual session in March of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, two curious articles appeared in government-linked news media. The first, published in a newspaper run by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s anti-graft body, was called “The fawning assent of a thousand people cannot match the honest advice of one”. It was written in an allegorical style traditionally used in China to criticise those in power, in this case in the form of an essay praising the seventh-century emperor, Taizong, for heeding a plain-talking courtier. The article called for more debate and freer speech at a time when China’s president, Xi Jinping, has been restricting both. “The ability to air opinions freely often determined the rise and fall of dynasties,” it said. “We should not be afraid of people saying the wrong things; we should be afraid of people not speaking at all.”
The second article, in the form of an open letter, ran—fleetingly—on a state-run website. “Hello, Comrade Xi Jinping. We are loyal Communist Party members,” the letter began. It called on Mr Xi to step down and eviscerated his record in office. The president, it said, had abandoned the party’s system of “collective” leadership; arrogated too much power to himself; sidelined the prime minister, Li Keqiang; caused instability in equity and property markets; distorted the role of the media; and condoned a personality cult.