China’s Leaders Ease Slightly on Dissent

Stephen DeAngelis

July 31, 2007

In a couple of earlier posts about how the Chinese people use the Internet [Connectivity in China and Web 2.0 in China], I have noted that as the number of Web users increases in China it will be increasingly difficult for government leaders to restrict access to information. I also indicated that they would eventually have to accept this reality and realign their policies to permit greater access to information. According to a Washington Post article by Edward Cody, President Hu Jintao has taken a crucial step in the right direction [“Bad News Tests China’s Propaganda Arm,” 27 July 2007]. Cody writes:

“According to a report circulating among Beijing intellectuals, Li Changchun, China’s senior propaganda official, went to President Hu Jintao recently suggesting a ban on the July issue of the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu. The scholarly monthly had published a long and daring article by a Communist Party professor saying that the party’s monopoly on power was the ‘root cause’ of many of the ills afflicting modern-day China, including corruption and peasant unrest. Although Hu has generally shown a restrictive attitude toward free speech, he counseled tolerance this time, the report said, advising Li that it is healthier to have such debate out in the open than to let it ferment under the surface. The magazine remains on the stands.”

Hu probably judged that few people read scholarly journals and therefore believed the threat to the party was minimal. This may or may not be true. The fact that a story about it made international news indicates that this is a big risk. On the other hand, as Cody notes, getting discontent out in the open helps China’s leaders better address challenges they face. Once leaders come to power, they often are surrounded by (or deliberately surround themselves with) people determined to keep bad news from reaching them. That is not a good situation. By permitting open scholarly debate, China’s leaders not only get to hear the bad news they might not otherwise hear they may learn what some very bright people suggest they do about it. In this case, however, eliminating single party rule is not likely to be received as a welcomed suggestion.

As the headline suggests, Cody’s article is not primarily focused on scholarly debate but on setbacks suffered by China’s propaganda arm. As I noted in an earlier post [China Learning About Resiliency and Trust], perceptions matter, but actions are more important. That message, according to Cody, has not yet sunk into the propaganda ministry.

“An explosion of negative news — tainted food exports, slave labor at brick kilns, political challenges and even supposed cardboard dumplings — has pained party censors and renewed demands for ideological and political discipline among China’s journalists. ‘News publishing professionals must resolutely instill a Marxist concept of news, maintain party principles, firmly uphold professional ethics and voluntarily commit themselves to upholding the sacred mission and glorious responsibility bestowed on them by the party and the people,’ said an order issued Monday by the party’s main propaganda organizations.”

I suspect that the censors are more pained about the thought of losing their jobs than they are about how bad news could affect the party. In order to gain the trust of the international community the bad news has to get out, painful as that may be. A continual stream of happy propaganda will only convince people there is a coverup going on. As difficult as it may be for the censors, the bad news is — in a way — good news for the future if it is accompanied by serious action. The same can be said about the decision to permit some scholarly debate. Nevertheless, with the Olympics coming to China next year, the propagandists don’t get it.

Cody points out that internal propaganda has the same tainting effect on the populace as it does on the outside world.

“Years of party propaganda and news reports distorted by censorship have instilled skepticism among other Chinese, particularly the better-educated. The party propaganda apparatus, which enforces censorship rules, has little credibility to lecture journalists on accuracy, they noted in Internet postings. In that light, some Beijingers expressed belief the cardboard dumplings report was true. [Despite official sources that labeled it a hoax.] … Chinese authorities have been particularly sensitive recently about how the party is portrayed. In part, the concern has arisen from a desire to radiate a good image for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But more important, officials have begun the countdown to a crucial party congress in the fall during which Hu is expected to cement his leadership, establish his ideological credentials and stack party organizations with his supporters. Against that background, the rash of negative news has been particularly unwelcome. After a meeting of top Beijing propaganda officials, for instance, the capital’s newspaper editors and television news directors last week were handed a list of newly off-limits subjects, Beijing journalists reported. The list included food safety as well as riots, fires, deadly auto accidents and bloody murder cases, they said.”

Hu would do more to burnish his leadership credentials by effectively addressing problems than denying them. He has taken a small step in the right direction and, hopefully, with his leadership more secure and the Olympics over, he will do just that. I don’t honestly expect him to make major changes before the party congress or the Olympics because of the unexpected consequences that could emerge. Change is never easy and seldom pretty and I’m sure President Hu is well aware of that. In the meantime, the world will be watching how the dissenting professor is treated.

“The Yanhuang Chunqiu article, written by Wu Min, a professor in Shanxi province assigned to train up-and-coming party officials, was particularly sensitive because it amounted to a frontal challenge to Hu’s ideological leadership. The president, in his role as party leader, had only days earlier given a solemn speech in which he said the Communist Party must continue economic reforms but also retain its one-party dictatorship.”

If the professor is permitted to retain his post and continue his writings, it will be a good sign. If he is fired from his position and/or jailed, the world will know exactly how far the Chinese regime has to go to earn its trust. Hu understands that he must balance his policies carefully as he moves forward since he is subject to criticism from both sides.

“Just as Wu’s essay was being published, an open letter signed by 17 former party officials claimed that Hu was betraying China’s socialist heritage by giving in to foreign influence and pushing free-market reforms too far and too fast, without concern for those left behind. … Hu had a less tolerant attitude toward the former cadres than toward the Shanxi professor. Shortly after their letter was displayed on a site called maoflag.net, the site was knocked off the Internet. It soon reappeared, but with the offending letter removed.”

Although such criticism makes him vulnerable within the party, Hu should take some comfort from the fact that criticism coming from both sides often means that policy decisions are on track — not too conservative and not too liberal. Common sense approaches to problems seldom make extremists happy. Compromise means that no side gets it way, but it also means that progress can be made. Hopefully, that is the path that President Hu will follow.