By Arab News
By John Lloyd*
Xi Jinping — president of China, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, chair of the Central Military Commission, chief of the military’s Joint Operations Command Center, chairman of the committees on cybersecurity, economics and finance among others — has a new honor that will linger long after he leaves office.
China’s Communist Party has inserted his view of the world — “Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism With Chinese Special Characteristics” — into the constitution.
He will be only the second leader after Mao Zedong to be so honored during his lifetime. Xi stands supreme. Yet that very accumulation of authority carries a threat, both to his power and to his state.
Xi’s central goals are to strengthen China’s economy and military power and to lead a sometimes-ferocious campaign against corruption, bolstering these aims with a steady determination to bring the news media back under the tightest control. Inserting both his thoughts and his name into the constitution will make anything that contradicts Xi’s official line an attack on the constitution. Xi wants to render independent journalism impossible and choke off China’s liveliest medium of criticism — social media. Blocking these arteries could be his largest mistake yet.
Xi’s desire to curb the media is not new. In a speech in 2013, he argued that workers in propaganda and ideology — broadly speaking, journalists and their minders — had become so undisciplined that the actions of some bordered on treason. “We must unwaveringly persist in the principle that the Party manages the media, persist in politicians running newspapers, periodicals, TV stations and news websites.”
The words “politicians running newspapers” were telling because they were a direct quotation from Mao, the founder of communist rule, still venerated in spite of his murderous policies. The phrase enshrined the dogma that the Party is the final judge of what may be published. Journalism was far too important to be left to journalists.
In the past five years, newspapers and TV shows that had enjoyed some autonomy — granted by Deng Xiaoping, who was in charge of economic and social reform from the late 1970s to the late 1980s — have lost nearly all of it. Journalists no longer can undertake any investigation not expressly permitted by the all-powerful Publicity (formerly Propaganda) Department. Usually that only allows investigating the affairs of people the Party wishes to destroy.
The most adventurous newspapers, such as the Southern Metropolitan Daily and Southern Weekend of Guangzhou, were muzzled in 2013. Xiao Shu, a former editorialist on the Southern Weekend, wrote that the appointment of a new, severe local head of Party propaganda meant that “the press in Guangdong retreated into its darkest period since the start of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening up’ policies in the late 1970s.”
That was just the start. The monopoly broadcaster, CCTV, dropped or toned down all its investigative and analytical programs. Journalists, who had previously suffered only dismissal if they were deemed to have gone too far, were again imprisoned. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 38 journalists were in prison in China in 2016, putting it second behind Turkey.
Writers for foreign news media find it harder to obtain visas and do investigative reporting.
Yet for Xi and his senior colleagues, the largest threat is social media — which has become more popular as approved journalism becomes more controlled. Online posts are often critical; an anonymous author wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that “even a cursory glance at China’s new social media revealed that officials were seen as skinning the people, not serving them.” Such public comments could not be allowed. This autumn, the authorities began investigating the most popular messaging services — Weibo, Wechat and Baidu — and found that they were exchanging “terror-related content… rumors… and pornography.”
Yet as repression continues and deepenes, pushback from society grows, and determined journalists and film makers continue to catalogue the darker sides of China. In 2012, a film called “High Tech, Low Life” followed bloggers on bicycles examining government censorship and the harsh and yawning divisions in Chinese society.
Suppression of forbidden information and commentary is much harder now. The sinologist Perry Link said in 2014: “Internally it’s getting more hard to handle, because complaints and demands from below are increasing and are better organized than before.” The middle class now numbers in the hundreds of millions. In five years — within Xi’s presidential term — McKinsey reckons that 75 percent of China’s urban middle class will enjoy a standard of living approaching that of Italy.
This more independent, and often independent-minded, youngish cohort is rapidly growing, as is their use of social media. The meeting of these two forces is unlikely to favor an attitude of resigned obedience, especially since many will have been abroad, and many more will read foreign material online.
The result is likely to be a more inquiring and critical citizenry, questioning why a political monopoly that once caused the deaths of millions and now chooses for its population what they should read, see and text to each other should rule unchallenged.
The gamble Xi is taking, by hugging all power to him, is that he and the forces he controls can limit such developments. But that will not last. Corruption, pollution, inequality, interfering bureaucracy and controlled media will become focal points for protest. Xi’s choice to strengthen authoritarian rule rather than loosen it will prove to be a large error — for himself, his country and, beyond these, the world in which China is such a crucial player.
• John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.