Press Freedom and Reform in China

Party leaders often see critics as enemies. Reform and tolerance of difference will not come easily.

The recent Chinese censorship skirmish is over and the lively Southern Weekly newspaper is for sale as usual across the country. No reporters lost their jobs and the local Communist Party bureaucrats who control what can be put in print have relaxed their grip slightly. The provincial propaganda official blamed for starting the whole dispute managed to stay in office, protesters are gone from the streets of Guangzhou and normality has returned.

But things are not quite the same as before. Another public demonstration against the way the Chinese Communist Party manages the nation has ended with some marginal gains for the complainers but no major reforms in sight—either at the Southern Weekly or more generally across the land. The status quo forces have held their own and begun striking back. Yet it seems certain this embarrassing (for Beijing) row at a southern Chinese newspaper will have longer term repercussions as one more example of the kind of trouble that new national leader Xi Jinping would like to avoid but cannot escape.

The problem at the Southern Weekly was fairly straightforward. Known nationwide as one of China’s more daring publications, it planned a New Year’s editorial calling for something the ruling party finds dangerous—letting people enjoy the many freedoms guaranteed by the state constitution but never permitted in real life. But after the editors had signed off and gone home, a provincial propaganda official named Tuo Zhen reportedly rewrote the editorial, turning it into a paean of praise for Communist rule. Though censorship is standard, this revision was exceptionally blatant. Journalists threatened to strike and, thanks to the Internet, a national wave of complaints soon followed. Sympathetic demonstrators began placing flowers before the newspaper office.

Cooler heads prevailed before any serious confrontation occurred. The provincial government, newly headed by a rising star on the national political scene, agreed to stop interfering directly with the paper’s content before publication—though it will continue issuing advance “advisories” about what is permitted. Although no protesting journalists were fired, the chief editor’s fate remains unclear. And after a few days passed, police across China began detaining and questioning the more vocal protesters; for example, a famous film actress who blogged on behalf of the protesting journalists was invited to “have tea” with security officers, a euphemism for a brisk interrogation and warning.

In addition, the party’s Central Propaganda Department in Beijing sent an “urgent memo” to senior media executives and local party officials to emphasize that no major changes will be forthcoming. “The party has absolute control over the media and this principle is unshakable,” it stated, resorting to the usual tactic of placing part of the blame on “external hostile forces.”

But out of sight is not necessarily out of mind, and that’s where problems lie for new Communist Party general secretary (and soon-to-be president) Xi Jinping and his senior colleagues. The Southern Weekly case is just another on a long list of public complaints about party and government actions that rile Chinese citizens. The Internet, especially via Chinese microblogs called weibo, spreads 100 million or more daily messages across the land. Despite increasingly intense official purging, many relay popular complaints about party and state malfeasance. A jaundiced population, fed up with corruption, nepotism, injustice and other ills, has grown increasingly cynical about self-interested bureaucrats who too often use high office to enrich themselves, friends and relatives. More and more citizens demand serious economic and political reforms.

Thus party rulers feel growing pressure to respond; Xi himself has warned that without a crackdown on corruption, for example, the party’s future could be in jeopardy. In some ways, Xi appears to patterning his actions on those of the late Deng Xiaoping, revered as China’s great post-Mao reformer. But while Deng demanded economic change, he had no tolerance for political reform; he ordered the 1989 Tiananmen shooting of student protestors, for example. Whether Xi will prove any more liberal remains unknown; the early evidence is contradictory and inconclusive.

But the party’s new Politburo, which Xi heads, can no longer ignore or suppress protests as readily as during pre-weibo days. Several items that have surfaced since the Southern Weekly fracas illustrate why. Consider, for example, the laojiao problem.

The laojiao system is an extra-judicial “re-education through labor” program which allows officials to send people they find disruptive for up to four years in prison camps, where they usually do farm or factory work. There are no formal charges, no trial and almost never any chance for appeal; those punished can include drug addicts, prostitutes, people who petition the government about grievances or anyone else whom local officials find annoying. According to some Chinese legal experts, the system violates the state constitution and Chinese law but it has been in place since 1957; CCTV, the state broadcaster, recently said 310 camps hold 310,000 prisoners, a sizeable portion of the estimated one million or so in various Chinese jails. (The United States, despite its much smaller population, has some 2.2 million prisoners plus another 4.9 million on probation or parole.)