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 cyber security, economics and finance among others – has a new honor that will linger long after he leaves office.
China’s Communist Party has decided to insert 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 large 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 in the constitution will further delegitimize critical commentary and unflattering revelations by making 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 2013, the then-new leader gave a speech to the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference in Beijing, in which he argued that workers in propaganda and ideology – broadly speaking, journalists and their minders – had become so undisciplined that some bordered on committing treason. His subsequent actions have been consistent with this belief.
In a book published earlier this year, I wrote, “one phrase in his speech was particularly telling. Xi said that ‘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 that condemned millions. The phrase enshrined the dogma that politicians – the Party – is the final judge of what journalism can say. Journalism was far too important to be left to journalists.
In the past five years, those newspapers and TV programs which 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 their latitude. Journalists no longer can undertake any investigation not expressly permitted by the all-powerful Publicity (formerly Propaganda) Department. Usually that only allowed for investigating the affairs of one whom the Party wished 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 head of Party propaganda in Guangdong, the region in which Guangzhou is the capital, 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 for number of reporters jailed. Writers for foreign news media find it harder to get visas and harder to do investigative reporting.
Yet for Xi and his senior colleagues, the largest threat is the social media – which have become more popular as approved journalism becomes again controlled. The online postings are often critical; an anonymous author wrote in Foreign Policy magazine this month that “even a cursory glance at China’s new social media revealed that officials were seen as skinning the people, not serving them.” These public comments could not be allowed in China. This autumn, the authorities began investigating the most popular messaging services – Weibo, Wechat and Baidu - and found that the services were exchanging “terror-related content… rumors… and pornography.”
Yet as this repression continued and deepened, the 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 more 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, the more so since many will have been abroad, and many more will read foreign material online.
The result is likely to foster a more inquiring and critical citizenry, tending to question 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 making, by hugging all power to him, is that he and the forces he controls can limit any such developments. But that will not last. Corruption, pollution, inequality, interfering bureaucracy and controlled media will become prompts 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 actor.
(John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and "Journalism in an Age of Terror". He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.)