Beijing taxis will be stuffier than usual in the run-up to leadership transition of the 18th Party Congress, notes China Digital Times. The state-run Global Times reports that the rear windows of Beijing taxis must be locked until further notice to prevent passengers from “handing out leaflets with adverse information.”
The Communist authorities appear notably jittery and the ruling party seems far from the self-confident, disciplined monolith portrayed in western media outlets.
Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville’s contention that revolutions occur not when conditions are improving rather than at their harshest is resonating in leadership circles, The Economist notes:
Patrols are hunting for “reactionary” slogans appearing on the streets, internet censors work overtime, police are stepping up the surveillance of dissidents, and officials scour bookshelves for samizdat works. As the Communist Party prepares for a once-a-decade turnover of its leadership this month, officials are battling to stem rumours about what the leaders are up to, and to sweep away evidence of public discontent.
The harsh sentence meted out to a pro-democracy activist this week is only the latest manifestation of a widespread crackdown.
As the ruling party “prepares for a generational power shift in the next two weeks, a similar shift is happening online that is testing the limits and displaying the evolution of China’s legions of state-directed censors,” Reuters reports:
Since its launch three years ago, Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, has become the country’s water cooler, a place where nearly 300 million Internet users opine on everything from Korean soap operas to China’s latest political intrigue. It has posed a unique challenge for Chinese Communist Party leaders whose overarching goal is to maintain tight political and social control, while at the same time wanting to give their citizens a conduit to blow off steam.
“One of the key challenges for the new leadership will be whether they can establish credibility through new governing mechanisms,” said Tony Saich, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
“How are they going to deal with a wired, globally connected, urban middle class that is probably less likely over time to be treated like children?”
The violent protests in the eastern city of Ningbo against plans to expand a petrochemical plant, in which police dispersed over a thousand largely middle-class demonstrators will have set alarm bells in party leadership circles, The Economist suggests:
Party leaders are obsessed with stability at this crucial political juncture. (Even Beijing’s taxis have been ordered to lock their rear windows, apparently to prevent passengers from throwing out dissident leaflets.) Ningbo’s turmoil must have been more than usually worrisome. In the build-up to the last leadership transition, a decade ago, the party’s biggest fear was of protests involving blue-collar workers whom state-owned companies were laying off by the millions. Today the party has long ceased to regard blue-collar support as critical to its grip on power. Instead, an emerging middle class is its most important bulwark.
The internet is also “frustrating the party’s efforts to control public opinion and stifle dissent,” it notes.
“In China you can criticize and conduct investigative reports on officials who are lower than the county level, but you cannot criticize the top leaders,” said Zhang Zhian, a journalism professor at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University.
Part of the reason for the dichotomy is rooted in the geography of power in China: edicts on what to censor are issued from the central government in Beijing. This means provincial officials have less say over what gets cut from China’s boisterous Weibo.
“If a party secretary is criticized, it is hard for them to go all the way to Beijing and say ‘please delete everything on Weibo about me’,” said Xiao Qiang (above), an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley who founded news website China Digital Times that publishes a list of banned words on Weibo.
“If it is just local and does not implicate someone higher up…(the censors) often will let it go. On the other hand, they do make very swift judgments on information they see as challenging the legitimacy of the party,” Xiao said.
The party has been unable to prevent a growing number of articles in official newspapers highlighting social tensions and calling for political reform.
“The writings of the 19th-century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, have been enjoying an unusual revival in bookshops and in the debates of intellectual bloggers,” says The Economist. “His argument that revolutions tend to occur not when conditions are harshest but when they are improving appears to have struck a chord among those fretting about where the country is heading.”
China Digital Times is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.