ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Xi faces test of his reform image
Publication Date : 11-01-2013
The recent stand-off between the staff of the outspoken Southern Weekend newspaper and the censors of Guangdong province drives home the point that it would be hard for China to make progress in political reform if the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is to remain as powerful as it is now.
It is also a timely reminder to Xi Jinping, the new CCP leader, that his dream of a revitalised China, which he expressed shortly after he assumed top power, will be difficult to realise if he adheres to a policy of balancing the leftists against the rightists.
An article in the Jan 3 New Year special of the Southern Weekend expressing the desire for constitutional rule was doctored by the provincial propaganda department to become one lauding the CCP.
The original article said that to realise Xi's dream, one needs to bring about constitutionalism in China, exposing the current lack of it. In the doctored version, it said China has never been as close to this dream as it is now.
Although censorship is commonplace in China, putting words into journalists' mouths is rare. According to the Southern Weekend, since Tuo Zhen became Guangdong's propaganda chief 11/2 years ago, his department has killed more than 1,000 articles at the Southern Weekend, causing great resentment.
With tension building, the altering of the New Year article to please the authorities became the last straw.
In China, the CCP's propaganda department is the thought police that monitors people's thinking, speech and publications, and controls anything from ideological debates to the flow of information. To many people, it is one of the main stumbling blocks to China's modernisation because it stifles the free exchange of ideas.
In 2003, then Peking University professor Jiao Guobiao wrote a long article detailing 16 ways in which the propaganda department had retarded China's modernisation, and called for its abolition. This was the first daring piece of indictment against what was considered to be the second pillar, after the gun, of CCP power. Since then, calls for the department's abolition have strengthened.
The Southern Weekend row is yet another piece of evidence supporting Prof Jiao's observation.
To suppress dissent over the fracas, the Central Propaganda Department issued a three-point statement to all media in China in support of its Guangdong provincial arm. The statement said it found nothing wrong with Tuo's vetting of the articles; stressed that exercising control over the media by the CCP was an "unshakeable principle"; and blamed the incident on incitement by foreign hostile forces.
It then ordered all media outlets in China to carry an editorial by the Global Times criticising the Southern Weekend. The article said "anyone with common sense knows that in China there is no room for a 'free press', and that the media should not harbour the unrealistic hope of becoming a 'political special zone'".
It also warned sternly that in China, if the media wanted to confront the government, it surely would be the loser.
This is like stoking the fire. At least two influential newspapers, the New Beijing News in the capital and the Xiaoxiang News in Hunan province, refused to comply at first, but did so only after heavy pressure from the Central Propaganda Department.
A day after the statement, Hu Chunhua, the Guangdong party boss, tried to minimise its damage. He reportedly promised, among other things, to reduce the scope of news censorship and to remove Tuo, the target of revolt at the weekly.
Observers agreed that the Southern Weekend incident represented the first major challenge to Xi. Upon assuming power, he had tried to project a pro-change image, and had given rise to hopes that he would spearhead political reform.
But the recent incident appears to point in the opposite direction. Indeed, many observers have said tightened press control is not entirely unexpected.
Long before the new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) was announced at the CCP's 18th Party Congress in November last year, people had been saying one indicator of Xi's commitment to political reform was whether Liu Yunshan was made a member of the PSC, China's apex of power.
This was because Liu had been heading the party's propaganda department for 10 years, during which he helped develop the world's largest cyberspace police force.
So when he was promoted to the seven-member PSC, people became sceptical of Mr Xi's commitment to political reform. The Southern Weekend incident seemed to justify this scepticism.
Why Xi wanted Liu in the PSC is anyone's guess. Some think he was taking orders from former leader Jiang Zemin, as Liu is from Jiang's faction.
But others believe the problem lies with Xi himself. Although he emulated late leader Deng Xiaoping in going on a tour to Shenzhen, showing his commitment to continued reform, he also cited Mao Zedong's words on at least five occasions, showing he was also faithful to Mao's teachings.
In a recent speech, he even said the Mao era and Deng era were equally important to China's development, and that one should not uphold one to the negation of the other. This seems to contradict the CCP's 1981 Resolution on Some Historical Issues, which admitted that Mao had made grave mistakes during his three decades at the helm.
It could be this innate desire to strike a balance between the leftists and rightists, shown in his speeches, that prompted Xi to promote Mr Liu to the PSC.
In China, Liu is considered to be a leftist not only because of the way he controlled cyberspace, but also because of the support he once lent to left-oriented former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and his Chongqing model before the latter's fall from grace.
Having retained Liu in the PSC, Xi has to bite the bullet now.