China's new leader urges 'sharp' party criticism

China's new leader said the ruling Communist Party should tolerate "sharp" outside criticism, in comments that are being viewed skeptically by a public accustomed to pervasive censorship.

State media said newly installed party General Secretary Xi Jinping made the remarks Wednesday at a gathering of non-Communist Party groups.

Members of the groups "should have the courage to speak the truth, give advice even if it is unpleasant, and accurately reflect the voice of the public," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Xi as saying.

He also asked all party organizations to "actively accept" and "sincerely welcome" advice and criticism from outside the party.

Xi, who is slated to become China's next president this spring, has vowed to tackle endemic official corruption, which he says threatens the future of the Communist Party.

Word of Xi's public endorsement of "sharp criticism" quickly spread in China's active social media, where a Xinhua posting of his comments was reposted more than 20,000 times within hours Thursday. Some responded with hope, but more expressed skepticism, if not downright cynicism.

China has routinely detained and imprisoned people critical of the party and the government. It also tightly censors newspapers, other publications and the Internet.

"Sharp criticism? We cannot even comment on news reports, let alone make sharp criticism," Zhang Xing, a Beijing lawyer, wrote on his microblog account. "Will it be enticing the snake out of its cave?"

The comment was a reference to China's notorious Hundred Flowers campaign in the 1950s, when Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong encouraged people to openly express their opinions under a policy of "letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thoughts contend."

The policy was followed by a brutal crackdown against those who criticized the regime and its ideology, and Mao said he had enticed the snakes out of their caves.

Zhao Chu, a Shanghai-based independent scholar, said Xi's strategy is different from Mao's.

Xi is attempting to make his administration appear more open while in reality it is tightening controls, said Zhao, whose microblog account was temporarily removed without explanation in January.

Several other prominent journalists and scholars also have seen their online presence removed in recent months. When journalists from the Southern Weekly newspaper in southern China's Guangdong protested overbearing censorship in January, many reporters were banned from posting comments on their microblog accounts. Some had their accounts deleted altogether.

"Many people have been shushed online," Zhao said. "And many people have been sent to prison for one article. Isn't it hypocritical for the party to say it wants to hear sharp criticism after it has already tightened speech?"

Willy Lam, an expert on party politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Xi's remarks did not depart from the party's usual stance on speech.

"What he says is `we are willing to listen to voices from different sectors on the condition that the party still holds power,'" Lam said. "I don't see any indication or sign he might be adopting a more liberal or benevolent approach to handle dissidents."