BEIJING — A leading writer and political maverick from Taipei who ardently supports the unification of China and Taiwan - is confounding authorities in a rampaging lecture tour that ends Monday, by doing something no one here ever does: criticize the Communist Party in public.
In truth, Li Ao, a TV personality, leftist, and prolific author who was born in northern China, attacked the US, Japan, and nearly everything but the moon in rambling speeches that have embarrassed official China.
Mr. Li's broadsides chided the Party for a lack of intellectual freedom in China, told how the early Party allowed feisty debates, and included quotes from Mao about the Party one day ending - all broadcast live on Hong Kong's Phoenix TV, which reaches millions on the mainland.
Such events here are rare.
More broadly, experts say, the improbable Li event underscores how 'frigid the political climate in China has become.
As the government of Hu Jintao continues to consolidate its power in preparation for a key Party plenum next month, there is little room for the type of debate Li advocates.
If the negative official response is an indicator, Li's speeches were also a surprise. Leading professors have subtly attacked Li while not mentioning why. "He has lost his solemnity," says Wang Jun Chao of Tsinghua University.
Li's itinerary, interests, meetings, and views on the unity of Chinese culture are widely reported. But not his critical speeches.
Li speaks at Fudan University Monday in Shanghai after confirming to reporters that authorities asked him to eliminate political content from his talk. He refused to say if he would do so.
In the past year, a serious "strengthening ideology" campaign has taken place in China. Party officials are reportedly choosing actively among cadres about who will and who will not advance in coming years. It is a climate described by one prominent historian as one where, "nobody should 'rock the boat'."
"The new leadership's philosophy is still unclear, and until it is, no one is going to make a mistake by taking the wrong line on reform. There isn't room for any dissenting opinions right now," the historian adds.
Li's call for greater liberties coincided with the third arrest and heavy sentence this year for a Chinese journalist. Zheng Yichun, a freelancer, got seven years in prison last week for writing critically of the party in the magazine Epoch Times.
This summer a famous website for intellectuals was closed, one of few remaining. The site, the Beijing Institute of Economics and Sociology, stayed open during an ongoing crackdown due to prominent family backing. Yet the Hu government shut the site, after an article appeared by former Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou.
In the article, Mr. Ma, just named leader of the KMT party in Taipei, strongly backed the "One China" idea in which mainland China and the island of Taiwan would unify. Yet Ma also argued two changes were needed in China before Taiwan would agree to unify. These were 1) real laws protecting freedom of press and speech. 2) the right for unofficial groups to exist and operate freely, including currently outlawed groups like the Falun Gong spiritual sect.
Now, as the Li event gets attention in Beijing, it is being argued that neither Li nor his hosts seemed aware of the others' realities. Li, schooled in the rough and tumble world of Taipei media, filled his speech with sexual references, skipped around from ancient warlords and wisdom to Dwight Eisenhower, and he ridiculed Lian Chan, the former KMT leader whose historic visit last spring was prized by Beijing as a way to undercut Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian. Standing at a dais studded with Beijing University's most prominent authorities, Li said he should have gotten the same "red carpet" treatment, as did President Clinton.
Indeed, rarely did Li allow his speeches to stray too far from himself, at one point saying: "There is nobody in history who has done more fighting for freedom of speech than Li Ao. I have written more than 100 books, 96 of which are banned.
Nobody in the world has written that many banned books... What does that prove? If I go to jail, I go to jail."
In Beijing, such words are incendiary. Public speech here is as painstakingly polite and deferential as it is controlled. No one talks openly, let alone on sensitive topics such as freedom of speech, or going to jail.
"[Beijing] didn't realize this is just a very critical person who just wants to criticize what it is that seems to be going wrong," says one European china expert. "Beijing officials are surprised by anything that is not zero sum.... Here, if you are against Taiwan succession, and for unification, you must be for Beijing. But the logic is more complex than this."
Li's university tour on the mainland was reportedly set up by Phoenix TV, whose owner Liu Changle last week told the Washington Post that greater openness and democracy would one day arrive in China, though gradually, and not in a Western form.
Western cable news channels Sunday carrying commentary on Li talk were blacked out; no mention of Li's critique has appeared in state-run media.
Li is a colorful figure in Taiwan. He is from Harbin, born, as he likes to say, "the same year as Elvis Presley." He lived under Japanese occupation, moved to Beijing, then to Taipei at age 14. He was a self-made academic, focusing on Chinese civilization, and lives what he calls a "very liberal" lifestyle. He regularly attacked the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek, and was twice thrown in jail.
"He's a unique personality on the Taiwan scene, pouring scorn on all parties, though fundamentally a unificationist," says Julian Baum, formerly with the Far East Economic Review, in Taipei. "He has a library of Chinese political history in his head."
As always, the Chinese political world is full of paradox: Last Saturday China's most prominent rock star, Cui Jin, was allowed to play an authentic concert in Beijing for the first time in a decade.