Optimists herald China’s new president, Xi Jinping, as a liberal reformer open to the prospect of relaxing censorship controls. Xi reinforced these expectations when he recognized the need for rule of law reforms and the toleration of “sharp criticism” of official policies. Unfortunately, political realities and recent events indicate that the fifth generation of Chinese leadership will remain hostile to public expression of dissent. In light of the current political environment, draconian restrictions on speech will likely persist until broader social and economic forces demand meaningful change.
Recent official campaigns demonstrate that the Chinese government remains intent on vigorously suppressing dissent. As an example, authorities beat and detained activists throughout the country in preparation for the 2013 National People’s Congress (NPC). Most notably, officials arrested and tortured Hu Jia, a prominent dissident, at the same time of Xi’s inauguration ceremony. Persecuting activists on a massive scale in order to silence opposition during a legislative session stands in stark contrast to official rhetoric touting a dedication to liberal reform. In fact, conducting a political purge on the eve of the NPC indicates that the Party remains firmly committed to using hardline tactics of violently suppressing dissent.
Protests over censorship at the Southern Weekend newspaper served as another early test for Xi. In that case, journalists staged rallies in protest of the government’s decision to block publication of a New Year’s editorial urging the government to uphold constitutional rights. In its place, authorities published an article praising Xi’s dream for China. The government blocked all references to the incident on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. Authorities also required major newspapers to publish a column condemning advocates of a freer press. Far from indicating willingness to reform, the central government subsequently declared that control over Chinese media outlets is an “unwavering principle.”
Restrictions on foreign media outlets have also increased during Xi’s term. This recent censorship push is reflected in the decision to block access to the English language broadcasts of BBC and Voice of America. Although the government has long censored BBC’s and VOC’s Chinese language broadcasts, restricting access to English language transmissions is an unusual measure that challenges optimistic appraisals of the government’s alleged commitment to reform.
Additionally, the government has recently targeted individual foreign journalists. In January, authorities refused to renew the visa of a New York Times correspondent, forcing him to leave China. The second time in a year that the government has effectively deported a foreign journalist, this move indicates that China is hardly poised to ease media restrictions. Police also detained a BBC reporter who investigated claims of government hacking operations. In an unusually public display of censorship, authorities detained Sky News correspondent Mark Stone during live broadcast coverage of the ongoing NPC. Just weeks ago, officials assaulted a German television crew reporting on the process of urbanization in Hebei Province. Such incidents suggest that authorities remain intensely hostile to journalists who investigate sensitive topics.
Legislative developments also indicate that the Party remains resistant to reform. As evidence of this, the central government recently announced that every television documentary must now pass a stricter review process before public broadcast. Additionally, the ruling Standing Committee under Xi’s nascent tenure has enacted legislation extending and reinforcing existing censorship controls. Specifically, Xi and his colleagues strengthened real-name registration requirements for Internet users and ordered Internet service providers to immediately remove and report sensitive content. Echoing Xi’s hollow calls for reform, authorities asserted that such measures were necessary in order to promote rule of law developments.
In response to these criticisms, Xi’s supporters might argue that he has simply not had enough time to implement meaningful changes. Accordingly, we should reserve judgment until after Xi has consolidated power. After all, although Xi became the Party’s General Secretary last year, he only assumed the presidency last week. This perspective, however, ignores the fact that entrenched powers have a vested interest in maintaining censorship controls.
As analysts have indicated, the majority of Xi’s colleagues on the Standing Committee are conservatives. This ruling body, which governs by consensus, is highly unlikely to enact liberal political reforms. According to Russell Leigh Moses, the dean of academics and faculty at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies, "political restructuring is clearly on hold: Those arguing for an expansion of the Communist Party's role -- from the economy to culture, and a good deal in-between -- won their places and the present day." Moreover, David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, asserted that the government is unlikely to loosen censorship restrictions because “too many people in the system see it as a slippery slope to extinction.”
As such, even if Xi intended to relax censorship controls, absent overwhelming pressure from economic and social forces, advancing meaningful reform would prove to be a Sisyphean task. Barring broader societal change, Xi and the fifth generation of leadership will likely only increasingly censor calls for reforms that threaten their monopoly on power.