Why Xi Jinping’s Media Controls Are ‘Absolutely Unyielding’

China's president fears a slowing economy, but new censorship may have gone one step too far.

<> on March 5, 2015 in Beijing, China.
<> on March 5, 2015 in Beijing, China.

China’s ruling Communist Party has long controlled the country’s media. But in the first few months of 2016, the party has asserted even stronger dominance of public discourse than it has in years. In February, Chinese President Xi Jinping made highly publicized visits to three prominent state media outlets in Beijing, telling assembled editors and journalists that their work must reflect total loyalty to the party. The move prompted swift public backlash that was itself then censored. The social media accounts of outspoken real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, long thought to enjoy the protection of powerful backers, were suspended after Ren criticized Xi’s media visit. A rare public fight broke out between hard-hitting business and finance magazine Caixin and the censors themselves, who deleted three Caixin articles about censorship – a topic rarely addressed directly in Chinese media — in quick succession. And a letter, apparently written by a state news agency Xinhua employee, circulated online on March 11 before being swiftly deleted, blasting Internet censorship and attacks on free speech. In this ChinaFile conversation, experts discuss why censorship has reached a fever pitch under Xi, and what the repercussions may be.

David Schlesinger, former chairman of Thomson Reuters China and founder of Tripod Advisors:

We must look back with equal measures of humility and wonder to the time when many journalists, Chinese intellectuals, and pundits predicted — or, more accurately, hoped — that incoming President Xi would lead an era of reform that would even touch on the political sphere. That was a time when micro-blogging platform Weibo was a cacophony of comment, when newspapers pushed the boundary of what had been acceptable, and when public discourse seemed an escape valve for pressures and tensions within society.

Now, three years after Xi became president, we see a fundamentally changed environment. Commentators, protesters, feminists, lawyers, journalists, activists — the list of those arrested, detained, jailed, silenced, and threatened is long. Censorship in both new and old media spheres is tight. Beyond the obvious conclusion that guesswork and wishful thinking about China and its leaders are usually wrong, what happened?

There are several factors to consider. First, the company Xi keeps. Xi is fundamentally conservative and controlling; this is made very clear by the appointments he makes. Simply take Lu Wei, the so-called Internet Czar — in all my dealings with him when he was at Xinhua, where he eventually served as deputy director, and I was at Reuters, it was clear he was absolutely unyielding, tough, and nationalistic. No one would appoint someone like him to a job like that without knowing precisely the kind of heavy-handed line one would get — and wanting that badly.

The second factor to consider is the party Xi leads. It is clear that he sees existential threats to the party in corruption and disloyalty. Yet he wants to preside over a triumphant 100th anniversary of the party’s founding in 2021. In that context a March 13 stunning misprint by the official Xinhua agency that called Xi China’s “last” leader instead of its “top” leader is both poignant and a pointed reminder to him of the need to keep the press in line.

Third, take a look at the economy Xi wrestles with. It was easy to allow financial media (Bloomberg, Reuters, and The Financial Times from the West, Caijing and Caixin internally — to give just a few prominent examples) to be relatively free to publish in China when the news was seemingly always good. But once politics and economics become ever more intertwined and the news became bad if not dangerous — slowdowns, layoffs, protests, currency questions — then, to a man like Xi, the need to control, rectify, and regulate the media and the commentariat became urgent.

And, finally, the effect that it has. A well-functioning media and commentariat (regardless of whether the surrounding society is free or democratic) provides an important measure of transparency and accountability.

Anne Henochowicz, translations editor at China Digital Times:

I agree with David that part of the goal of the current crackdown may be to close the black box that social media, especially Weibo, opened in the early years of this decade. But, as China Digital Times editor-in-chief Xiao Qiang pointed out in a previous conversation, resistance to Xi’s “rule by fear” can temper censorship, and even directly challenge it. In the past few weeks, we have already seen a backlash against increased censorship from independent media, as well as from employees of state media.

At the start of the annual two-week sessions of China’s largely rubber-stamp legislature in March, the influential media organization Caixin published an interview with delegate Jiang Hong, quoting him on the need for non-party members such as himself to freely give suggestions to the government. On March 5, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s powerful Internet regulator, ordered that the article be removed because it included “illegal content.” The magazine complied, but then noted the incident in an English-language report a few days later. That article was removed as well, but its very existence is remarkable, a “bold and rare” move, according to David Bandurski, editor at University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project.

Caixin is known for probing the murky borders of China’s censorship. But the business magazine, along with all other media in China, must exist in that dim zone of the permissible. State media are even more circumscribed, as we were reminded when state broadcaster China Central Television declared that its surname is “party” during Xi’s inspection of its headquarters in February. But some individuals from state media are pushing back, too. A few days before that visit, chief editor of reliably nationalist, state-run Global Times Hu Xijin called for the government to be open to “constructive criticism” and to have a “certain amount of tolerance for unconstructive criticism.” More notably, a Xinhua employee published an open letter last week on March 11 lambasting media and Internet censorship, and comparing the purge of tycoon-turned-commentator Ren from social media and subsequent denunciation of him “a kind of Cultural Revolution-style mass criticism.” Political cartoonist Kuang Biao drew the same comparison between Ren’s current situation and “struggle sessions” 50 years ago.

Whatever the precise intent of reining in speech, the effect may be to trigger a mutiny of organizations and individuals previously willing to abide censorship. We are already starting to see pushback against increased restriction.

Yaqiu Wang, researcher on civil society and human rights in China:

Ren’s banishment from China’s social media arena is a continuation of the crackdown on “big Vs” — influential commentators — and the further tightening of controls on speech and public discourse. But different from the previously muzzled big Vs such as American investor Charles Xue and New York Times contributing writer Murong Xuecun, Ren is “a second-generation red” — a moniker for offspring of party elites — and was long considered a party loyalist.

If one reads the articles published by state media outlets denouncing Ren, one will find that they all focus on Ren being a deviant party member. For example, an article from state-run Guangming Daily on Ren was headlined “Comprehensively Be Strict in Governing the Party, How can a Party Member’s Capricious Anti-party Behavior be Tolerated?” The first part — “Comprehensively Be Strict in Governing the Party” — refers to one of the “Four Comprehensives,” Xi’s doctrines on governing the country he put forth in early 2015 in which he emphasized the importance of party discipline. Another article on the news website Qianlong titled “Who Gave Ren Zhiqiang the Confidence to Oppose the Party?” accused Ren of being a party member who “disregards the party constitution” and “only speaks for capitalism.”

The banishment of Ren as well as the demand that party mouthpieces to be “surnamed party” could be seen, therefore, as part of Xi’s ongoing effort to unify the party from within. China’s economy is now growing at its slowest pace in a quarter of a century, and labor unrest has multiplied as a result. Xi’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign inevitably must have piqued quite a few among the ranks. Facing these challenges outside and inside of the party, maintaining party unity is increasingly becoming an imperative for the survival of its rule.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Yaqiu Wang researches and writes about civil society and human rights in China.

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