BEIJING (Reuters) - A group of "princelings", children of China's political elite, has quietly urged the Communist Party leadership to release jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo on parole to improve the country's international image, two sources said.
Liu's release is not high on the agenda of the party, which is trying to push through painful economic, judicial and military reforms amid the most extensive crackdown on corruption in over six decades, the sources with ties to the leadership said, requesting anonymity.
But the back channel push for Liu's parole shows that a debate is taking place among leaders about damage to China's reputation caused by his jailing. It also suggests the ruling elite are not monolithic when it comes to views on dissent.
Liu, 58, a veteran dissident involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests crushed by the army, was jailed for 11 years in 2009 on subversion charges for organising a petition urging an end to one-party rule. He won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
"For many princelings, the pros of freeing Liu Xiaobo outweigh the cons," one of the sources said. "Liu Xiaobo will definitely be freed early. The question is when."
He is eligible for parole after serving half his term.
The sources declined to say how big the group of princelings was, but said most were second- or third-generation born in the 1960s or 1970s and some were close to President Xi Jinping.
"The biggest worry is hostile forces using Liu Xiaobo once he is freed," the second source told Reuters.
Asked how the message was relayed to the leadership, the source said: "We have our channels ... the topic has come up many times during our gatherings."
The sources declined to identify the princelings or say if they had written or spoken to Xi or went through his aides or family members.
The Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Justice and State Council Information Office did not respond to faxed requests for comment.
Liu's wife, Liu Xia, has been put under effective house arrest since shortly after her husband won the Nobel prize, ostensibly to prevent her from talking to the media, and could not be reached.
Liu Xia was admitted to hospital in February after police refused to let her seek medical help abroad.
Liu Xiaobo is considered a moderate dissident, but the Communist Party is obsessed by anyone or anything it perceives as a threat to social stability.
Critics say Chinese leaders are insecure about what they feel are Western efforts to undermine one-party rule by pushing democratisation.
President Xi, despite being the son of a reform-minded former vice premier, has shown no sign of wanting to loosen the political system. He said in Belgium last month that China had experimented with multi-party democracy and that it did not work.
China's human rights record has been a thorn in its side since the army crackdown on student-led demonstrations for democracy centred on Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, which attracts endless opprobrium abroad.
SUPPRESSION OF EXPRESSION
The government has stepped up pressure on the rights community ahead of the 25th anniversary of the crackdown, detaining several leading dissidents and activists, including lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and journalist Gao Yu.
Xi's administration has also clamped down on Internet critics and tightened curbs on journalists in what rights groups call the worst suppression of free expression in recent years.
Yet the purge of retired domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang could be conducive to Liu's release, the sources said.
Zhou is under virtual house arrest and under investigation for corruption. He had little sympathy for dissidents and during his five-year watch government spending on domestic security eclipsed the defence budget.
"Zhou Yongkang had recommended imprisoning Liu Xiaobo," the second source said, adding that this could be an opportunity to undo Zhou's deeds.
"But even if Liu Xiaobo is freed, the government will not (politically) rehabilitate June 4 soon," the source said, referring to the Tiananmen crackdown.
Liu's lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said that any decision on releasing Liu would be political, not legal.
Maya Wang, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said there have been sustained efforts from within China to get Liu released, but that she was not optimistic.
"According to Chinese law he would have to admit guilt first. Since he didn't, the likelihood of that happening is rather low," Wang said.
Despite Beijing's crackdown on dissent, there have been nuanced changes to China's policy towards the 1989 protests.
Taiwanese song writer Hou Dejian, who defected to China in 1983 and was deported seven years later for staging a hunger strike with Liu and two others in support of student protesters on the eve of the Tiananmen crackdown, set foot in China in 2006 for the first time in 16 years.
Hou's return and the recent release from detention of two outspoken bloggers - Xue Manzi and Wang Gongquan - have raised hopes the government may show leniency towards Liu.
In another sign of possible tolerance, President Xi approved publication in China last year of the Chinese version of "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" by Harvard academic Erza Vogel, multiple sources said.
The book was the first unofficial account of the crackdown by a foreign academic to be published in China.
In yet another sign, "democracy movement" was dropped last year from a government blacklist of "hostile forces", three independent sources said. But the security apparatus continues to put dissidents and bereaved families of victims under house arrest ahead of politically sensitive dates.
In a rare move, Chen Ziming, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison as one of two "black hands" behind the 1989 protests, was allowed to go to the United States in January for medical treatment and to receive a human rights award.
The 1989 protests had initially been labelled "counter-revolutionary", or subversive, but have since been watered down to a "political disturbance".
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, Maxim Duncan and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie)