Papering over the cracks: China’s newspaper protests are a symptom of its core contradiction

As China digests its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, the Chinese media is at a crossroads: the old semi-censorship regime is an awkward one. This status quo is being increasingly challenged by citizens and journalists longing for more pluralism in the media.

Rogier Creemers
23 January 2013
Buying newspapers in Beijing. Demotix/Alec Ash. All rights reserved.

Buying newspapers in Beijing. Demotix/Alec Ash. All rights reserved.

It has been quite a month for the Chinese media. Over the past few weeks, the 2012 Nobel Prizewinner in Literature Mo Yan caused a stir with his comments on censorshipBeijing cracked down on VPNs, the service providers that facilitate bypassing the Great Firewall; the General Administration of Press and Publications issued a number of draft measures which promise to impose more licensing requirements on internet publishing and on offices representing foreign media enterprises; and the National People’s Congress issued a decision confirming the earlier imposition of a real-name system for all, “network service providers that handle website access services for users, handle fixed telephone, mobile telephone and other surfing formalities, or provide information publication services to users”, officially in a bid to protect Chinese users’ privacy.  

At the same time, however, the CCP leadership has been confronted with increasing challenges to its media policy. On Christmas day, there was an open letter calling for, amongst other measures, the implementation of the right to free expression as guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution. Then, at the turn of the New Year, the website of the pro-reform magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu was closed after it had published a New Year’s message, also calling for political reform on the basis of the Constitution.

This matter became world news when a few days later, a number of staff at the Southern Weekend, probably China’s most outspoken newspaper, went on strike, accusing the provincial government of tampering with its New Year’s message. Allegedly, the original message, entitled China’s Dream, a Dream of Constitutionalism, was changed into a paean to the new generation of Chinese leaders. While denied by official channels, most notably the People’s Daily-owned Global Times, these changes were ascribed to provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, who allegedly also added a few choice words of his own to the message.

If these allegations are true, it would be an unprecedented interference into the editorial processes of China’s newspapers. While it is well-known that China imposes strict control over its media, censorship is normally carried out in-house, either by dedicated personnel or by editors knowing where the line has to be drawn. Propaganda authorities often direct how certain stories are to be reported, and sometimes prohibit news outlets from directly reporting on certain matters themselves, but normally do not directly interfere with the editorial process.

This has created a delicate balance in which journalists have some space for muckraking and investigative reporting, while on the whole, the Party remains in political control. The breaking of this uneasy peace was the primary cause for the strike. Over the subsequent weekend, however, the situation escalated, with overt and subtle declarations of support by web users and media enterprises, as well as demonstrations in front of Southern Weekly’s headquarters in Guangzhou.

This matter may turn into an important test case for the Party’s new Secretary-General, Xi Jinping, even before he officially takes up the state presidency. The Hu-Wen period has been widely seen as a lost decade on freedom of expression inside China, and expectations have grown that the new leadership might be more liberal, ease media censorship and move ahead on political reform. In the first few weeks of his tenure, Xi has indeed mandated changes in the Party’s working style, appearing tieless at events and limiting his catering arrangements to “four dishes and one soup”. There might also be a number of other initiatives in the offing. In the judicial sphere, for example, it has been announced that the much-maligned “re-education through labour” process will be abolished. More germane to the life of most ordinary Chinese, however, is his announced anti-corruption drive. It seems, however, that many voices were hoping for more and deeper reform.

There are two ways to look at this issue. First, one could take the charitable view, and take the Party’s political message in good faith. In its Constitution, the Party claims that its main objective is to modernize and strengthen China. The theoretical basis for this are the basic tenets of Marxism-Leninism, supplemented by the concrete experience of successive generations of leaders, from Mao to Hu. As the guardian of this blueprint for success, the Party is the only organization capable of governing China, and in order to ensure this happens well, its officials are selected on the basis of merit. In this view, any call for the introduction of other political organization is tantamount to rejecting the scientific truth of socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics. Hence, it does not see the public sphere as a forum for all sorts of views and opinions to contend freely, but as a “public opinion battlefield” that it needs to occupy in order to ensure only correct information is disseminated. However, the Party recognizes that, as circumstances change, debate about specific policies and measures is necessary. It also recognizes that the circulation of information is required for economic and commercial purposes. Hence, it allows a measure of policy discussion in newspapers and online, which culminate in more enlightened reform measures. Furthermore, it claims to set a large store by “public opinion supervision”, the notion that the public should supervise the performance of officials and departments, and provide criticism if they don’t do their work well.

The second angle is more cynical. In this view, the Party is a mafiosi network of corrupt cadres that is bent on maintaining its iron grip on Chinese society. Its leaders are selected through palace intrigue, and the organization rewards loyalty to one’s patrons, rather than meritorious public service or success in the marketplace, and does so by controlling access to perks, education, jobs and opportunities to extract wealth from society. Also, it co-opts certain social groups that might otherwise become a threat to its continued existence, such as students and entrepreneurs, and excludes others, such as the “New Five Black” categories. This game of politics creates a perfect storm of incentives for corruption and power abuse, all of which in turn support the structure’s resilience. Reform is an excuse to maintain the existing power structure, and limited to superficial matters, as real, deep reform will not take place. Public feedback on policies or officials is toothless, as the Party will prevent any meaningful organization outside of it, and will take care of everything on its own in most cases. 

To a certain extent, the policy recommendations of these two visions overlap, if sometimes for different reasons. In the charitable view, having media censorship is akin to having rules of the road: it is in everyone’s interest that only correct and safe information reaches the eyes and ears of audiences that are easily confused. In the cynical view, open public communication is inimical to the Party’s interest because it reveals the extent of the privileges that Party members, cadres and officials enjoy. Both visions would also support, for example, real-name registration of social media users, because it enables a “safe, healthy and upward” internet environment in which harmful information can be better prevented, or because it ensures that problematic dissidents can be traced, depending on preference.

It is in the tension between these two visions, the official one that Chinese citizens are being told every day, and the cynical one they see around them, that both media policy and popular response to it take shape. The Party is clearly aware that faith in its message has been waning. In response, the role of culture has gained new prominence. Hu Jintao launched the “Socialist Core Value System”, a list of eight honours and disgraces by which citizens should live. In 2011, the Central Committee published a decision in which it aimed to remedy the problems it described as: “the function of culture in promoting the raising of the entire nation's civilization level must be urgently strengthened; in a number of areas, morals are defeated, sincerity is lacking, the view of life and value system of a number of members of society is distorted, […] public opinion guidance capacity must be raised, network construction and management must be urgently strengthened and improved”. 

Implementation plans concerning culture and the Internet published in 2012 further outlined the specific measures that would ensure the continued domination of the Party voice: more State input into the cultural industries and the media, more regulation concerning the circulation of information, particularly online, more training for media professionals and the creation of mechanisms that ensure Party and State departments control media infrastructure. These are policies that the Xi leadership seems to have clearly taken over, which is confirmed by the appointment of their architect, ex-propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, to the Standing Committee.

But this tension traps the leadership between a rock and a hard place, for it must take responsibility for everything that takes place in China, including negative news. If things go wrong, it can’t blame the previous government, because that is now more than six decades ago; it can’t blame the opposition, because there is none; it can’t blame specific departments, because they are staffed by Party members; and it can’t blame bankers, capitalists or other popular targets for political scorn, because they provide the structure of patronage on which the Party rests.

Chinese leadership can only describe corruption as individual cases of moral degeneration, because identifying it as a consequence of systemic factors would be to admit the flawed nature of its entire structure. Hence, official language about negative phenomena tends to be couched in vague terms, which require that Party members must be trained and do their best even more, or the blame is put at the feet of – often foreign – “hostile forces”, the class enemies of the 21st century. In the case of Southern Weekend, foreign hostile forces are already accused of fanning the flames.

In this particular instance, It seems that the matter has fizzled out for the moment. Some compromise has been struck between the leadership and Southern Weekend, and with the cracks duly papered over, the world will continue to turn. The factors that caused it to escalate, however, will remain. In the end, the Party suffers from the same problem the Soviet Union faced: in its efforts to maintain a grip on power, it creates its own enemies, especially among the expanding middle class. Its strong hold on access to opportunities at all levels frustrates the upwardly mobile; the consequences of endemic corruption – tainted food, shoddy building construction and environmental pollution, amongst others – cause increasing harm to citizens’ livelihoods; and the brutality of individual officials creates uproars on a nearly daily basis.

Citizens have learnt to live with the regular mendacity of official messages and the secretiveness of their rulers. Increasingly, however, these citizens are becoming taxpayers, and as millions have been lifted out of the subsistence economy, they demand that those governing them do so by the commitments they made themselves, in the Chinese Constitution, to speaking the truth. “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world,” a line written by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, was retweeted by the Chinese actress Yao Chen to her social media followers, all 32 million of them, more than any other person on the planet. At the moment, however, it seems that it is something her government is neither able nor willing to provide.

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