In the 18th century after a passing breeze caused him to lose his place in a book, a Chinese scholar named Xu Jun wrote this short poem: "The clear breeze is illiterate, so why does it insist on rummaging through the pages of a book?" Though this couplet was seemingly harmless, the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty (1645-1911) executed Xu in 1730 for seditious thought. The Qing, invaders from the Manchurian steppe whose dynastic name meant "clear" or "pure," were acutely sensitive to the insinuation that they were illiterate barbarians despite adopting the trappings of Chinese civilization. Countless other poets shared Xu's fate during the dynasty's infamous literary inquisitions. While this paranoia appears excessive, it was a reflection of a very real problem for the Manchus.
The Qing, like all other Chinese central governments, struggled to contain dissent across a continent-sized empire. This proved doubly difficult because a small number of ethnic Manchus ruled over a far larger population of resentful Han Chinese. Han rebellion, which often coalesced around the purported superiority of Han culture, was a constant threat, shaking the foundations of the empire from the mid-19th century. Eventually, Han-led revolution swept away the Qing — and the entire imperial Chinese system — in 1911, leading to the formation of the Republic of China. This, in turn, quickly split along factional lines into warlord cliques. Truly effective central rule did not return until the Communists seized power in 1949.
Paranoia appears to be on the upswing in China once again as President Xi Jinping attempts to force painful structural reforms past resentful provincial and local governments, the bitter medicine for years of distortions imposed by China's wave of economic stimulus. Outwardly, he seems well poised to do this. Observers often call him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. On the outside, it appears to be true. Xi is in the midst of an epochal housecleaning with his anti-corruption campaign, which has disrupted countless power networks and, in the process, created numerous enemies.
Since 2012, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party's top anti-graft agency, has investigated and punished hundreds of thousands of officials. The campaign is set to continue, with all arms of the government completed before the 19th Party Congress in 2017. By doing this, Xi has eliminated political rivals, and seemingly, the system of consensus-based politics that had prevailed in China since 1978 — a system intended to be a hold on the emergence of individualistic dictatorship and the policy ills that flowed from it. It is a system now seen by Xi as unsuitable for handling China's entangled economic problems, such as overcapacity in heavy industry and ballooning corporate debt. But China's ruling authorities are behaving as if they are anything but secure — since February, Chinese censors have responded harshly to seemingly innocent slips in the press. Beijing's harsh response suggests that political struggle is more intense in China than it has been in decades.
Reading Between the Lines on China's Paranoia:
Ahead of the annual plenary sessions of China's National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), Xi embarked on a widely publicized tour of China's top three state media outlets. During the tour, the media was encouraged to swear unflinching loyalty to the party — effectively Xi himself, who had recently cast himself as the "core of the Party." The surname of the media, Xi demanded, must be "the Party." Within days, the CCDI launched an anti-corruption investigation targeting both the Central Propaganda Department and the government's top censorship agency. The message was clear — Xi was demanding even more obedience from the already heavily controlled state media.
Nonetheless, there were signs of resistance from within the media. A number of prominent editors resigned in protest. On the sidelines of the NPC and CPPCC, Caixin, a relatively independent financial news outlet, was censored when it published an interview in which a CPPCC delegate called for greater press freedom. Caixin followed with an article noting that its previous article had been censored.
Aside from the rare public shows of disobedience from the press, Beijing appears to be extraordinarily sensitive to many seemingly innocuous mistakes. In March, a paper owned by the Guangdong Communist Party published a front page with two headlines. One, covering Xi's media tour, read "Party and government-sponsored media are propaganda battlefronts and must be surnamed 'Party.'" Directly below it was a photo of the sea burial of a prominent politician with a headline reading "His soul returns to the sea." But, read vertically, the two headlines read "The soul of the media has died because it bears the Party's surname." In another instance, a Xinhua article caused a stir when a typo changed a reference to Xi Jinping being "China's Paramount Leader" (Zuigao Lingdao) to become "China's Last Leader" (Zuihou Lingdao).
The state seems to be guided by the maxim: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. That paranoia, while seemingly over the top to many foreigners, is not unfounded. During thousands of years of authoritarian rule in China, a celebrated tradition of subversion by way of satire, allegory and allusion developed, taking advantage of the Chinese language's many homophones and dialects. They often served as secret messages between the like-minded, whether scholars expressing protest or conspirators for the throne.
As long as this tradition has existed, China's rulers, particularly the ones who felt insecure on their thrones, have attempted to stamp out veiled attacks wherever they thought they saw them. In imperial times, countless writers literally lost their heads for penning poems seen as criticizing the ruling authorities. After the demise of Imperial China, the tradition persisted. In 1965, a writer with Mao's backing published a screed accusing a popular play of being an allegorical attack on the Great Helmsman. This was used as an excuse to remove some of Mao's key enemies and enhance his power, helping kick off the Cultural Revolution. In Taiwan two years later, well-known writer and social critic Bo Yang was locked up for a decade by the Nationalist Party dictatorship because he translated a Popeye comic strip in a way seen as mocking Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek's retreat to Taiwan. Xi's media crackdown is certainly not breaking with the past.
A Rare and Open Dissent:
For China's rulers, it is impossible to tell whether any given indiscretion in the media is an innocent mistake, the work of a disgruntled journalist or something more sinister. The rate at which China's censors have punished seemingly innocent mistakes suggests that they are searching for (and expecting to find) something that must be more threatening than a few angry journalists.
While they are undoubtedly turning up some false positives in the search for foes, the slaying of imaginary opponents does not mean that the presence of foes is imaginary. As the NPC opened, an open letter calling for Xi's resignation emerged on an online news site affiliated with Xinjiang's Propaganda Department. It was anonymously signed by "Loyal members of the Communist Party" who blamed Xi's "abandonment of the democratic system of the collective leadership of the Politburo Standing Committee" for a whole host of ills plaguing China, including economic mismanagement and the creation of a hostile environment. The article was quickly pulled from the site, and a dozen people affiliated with the outlet are known to have been arrested in what appears to be an ongoing investigation.
While the authorship of this letter cannot easily be verified, what is known is that someone with access to media resources had it written and posted in the first place. It was not a call for democracy, and the preoccupation with the collective leadership of the Politburo Standing Committee suggests that it comes from groups within the ruling class whose voices are no longer represented in policy, thanks to Xi's destruction of the consensus-based political leadership system that had prevailed since Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978. Taken together, the letter looks like a defiant announcement from some element of the ruling elite that three years of escalating anti-corruption campaigns have failed to uproot them. Until now, there has been a general sense of passive opposition to Xi's policies from entrenched interests, and even a few signs of under-the-table moves to embarrass the Chinese premier. Yet, this is the most brazen attack on Xi so far, directed not only at his policies but the core principle of his leadership. Political resistance is now a tangible force in China.