The most notable fact about China’s anti-censorship protest is that it isn’t isolated an isolated incident, says a leading analyst.
“On Dec. 26, 38 prominent academics, writers and journalists wrote an open letter to the Party calling for democratization and constitutional rule,” writes Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College:
Shortly after the release of the letter, in an unconnected act of defiance, several prominent human rights activists managed to visit Liu Xia, wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who has been placed under illegal house detention by the Chinese government since late 2010. The activists posted the video of their brief meeting with Ms. Liu on the web. For a regime that has kept Ms. Liu incommunicado since her husband won the Nobel more than two years ago, this incident was a symbolic defeat.
“What was even more heartening about the incident at Southern Weekly was that the defiant journalists immediately drew support from a broad, albeit informal, alliance of elites,” notes Pei.
The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos elaborates on the point
“When a Chinese ingénue, beloved for her comedy, doe-eyed looks, and middle-class charm, is tweeting her fans the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we may be seeing a new relationship between technology, politics, and Chinese prosperity,” Osnos writes:
Solzhenitsyn, who was less known for his comedy, doe-eyed looks, and middle-class charm, won the Nobel Prize in 1970, and ended his lecture with a Russian proverb: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” This week, the actress Yao Chen (above), who has more followers on social media than anyone else in China—or, notably, anyone else on the planet—sent that line out to her thirty-one million fans on Weibo, the microblogging site, as a show of support for a Chinese newspaper locked in a battle over censorship.
The thirty-one million followers she had racked up by Tuesday add up to a little less than half the total membership of the Communist Party. In the days ahead, we will see which combination of carrot and stick Xi’s government applies to try to forge a solution. Whatever it is, the larger battle remains unresolved: the fight over who defines the truth in China
“The battle at Southern Weekly is unlikely to be the last attempt by China’s progressive forces to push for more political change and test Mr. Xi [Jinping]‘s commitment to reform. The new leadership’s soft handling of these three separate incidents will probably encourage more people to come forward and press their demands,” Pei writes for the Wall Street Journal:
Such a “China spring” scenario, should it unfold, will almost certainly ignite a divisive debate at the top of the Chinese leadership. Consider the current political dynamics. At the moment, Mr. Xi’s political strategy is to brand himself as another Deng Xiaoping—that is, a strong leader intent upon reviving China’s flagging economy. …..Unfortunately, Mr. Xi’s strategy is now facing a political challenge—not from the conservatives, but from the liberals in Chinese society. Like Deng in 1979 (when Beijing urbanites started the Democracy Wall movement pushing for political modernization) and throughout the 1980s (when liberals constantly urged political openness), Mr. Xi will soon be embroiled in a two-fronted war: overcoming conservative resistance to economic reform while containing the pro-democracy opposition.
“Finding a resolution to the standoff poses a challenge both to the central authorities and to Hu Chunhua, the new party chief of Guangdong and a potential candidate to succeed Mr. Xi in a decade,” The New York Times reports.
The increasingly ideological conflict “has emerged as the first major test of new President Xi Jinping’s definition of liberal reforms, and China’s greatest battle over freedom of the press in at least five years,” says The New Yorker’s Osnos:
As I’ve written before, most Chinese press censorship is subtle; there is usually no man with a red pen striking paragraphs in the newsroom. Instead, it’s up to editors to self-censor or face the possible consequences (unemployment, arrest, etc.), an arrangement that not only allows the government to adjust the boundaries at will, depending on its needs, but also allows journalists to feel that they aren’t enacting Orwell’s vision of 1984. And, for the better part of sixty years, it has worked.
But the balance is getting harder to maintain.
“In maintaining his delicate balancing act between reform and conservatism, Mr. Xi is likely to find his real enemy not among those calling for greater openness and freedom in China, but within his small circle of colleagues,” Pei concludes:
He must be aware that his political “Achilles’ heel” will be his perceived weakness in handling overt challenges to the Party’s rule, such as this week’s anti-censorship protest. In the past, conservatives forced out top leaders who failed to pass the litmus test on their willingness to suppress pro-democracy forces. The risk that, because of his political softness toward dissent, Mr. Xi could be unseated by similar hardliners is real.