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January 9, 2013 6:51 pm
It takes an Orwellian sense of irony – or a complete lack of it – for a censor to ban the phrase “freedom of speech”. Yet that was among the search terms blocked on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, in the row over censorship that erupted in Guangzhou this week.
Apart from anything else, freedom of speech and the press are officially protected by article 35 of the Chinese constitution. Somehow, the Communist party contrives to hold that thought alongside the precept that, as one commentary put it, “party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle”.
The act of censorship that led to the brief strike by journalists on the Southern Weekend newspaper was even more absurd than usual. Tuo Zhen, the chief censor of Guangdong province, not only blocked a pointed new year editorial calling for the rule of law (by implication, placing limits on party rule) but wrote a version supporting Xi Jinping, the incoming president.
Karl Marx believed that capitalist society would collapse under the weight of its contradictions. We must hope that censorship in China will collapse under the weight of its absurdity. Its methods and purpose are antiquated in a world where 300m Chinese people use microblogs and social networks, often to pour scorn on party officials.
But the party’s tolerance for absurdity is high – especially when the alternative is to risk its own demise. Free speech is a moral imperative that would benefit China – and even have some advantages for Beijing – but all the party sees is the shadow of Tiananmen Square.
The trigger for this episode is injured professional pride. Chinese journalists have always endured censorship of the most nit-picking and intrusive kind from the central propaganda department. Any controversy, such as the 2011 high-speed train crash – brings forth lists from censors of things that must not be mentioned and questions that cannot be raised.
As long as the media existed in isolation, most journalists could just about tolerate this. Now, however, news spreads instantly on social media, often before it appears in the press. Meanwhile, western outlets have led the way since the Bo Xilai scandal in reporting corruption within the party’s leading elite.
“Anyone aspiring to be an investigative journalist has been frustrated for a long time,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation who worked in China. That frustration has turned to humiliation.
Mr Xi inadvertently encouraged a rebellion by choosing Shenzhen, the manufacturing city near Guangzhou, for his first visit as leader. That was a tribute to Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 “southern tour”, on which he encouraged officials to be “bold” in pursuing economic reform.
The president’s talk of “breaking new ground” in pursuing Deng’s policies left open the possibility of greater civil liberty. As a group of academics and authors including He Weifang, a Peking University professor, wrote in a letter of protest about the Southern Weekend affair: “Guangdong province is the bridgehead of reform and opening ... the power of this one province ripples across the country.”
Its journalists decided to be bold – to attack Guangdong’s censors in the hope that Beijing would take their side. They were soon disabused – the Global Times, a tabloid allied to the People’s Daily, the official party mouthpiece, thundered that “the media absolutely will not become a ‘political special zone’ ” like Deng’s special economic zones.
There was some compromise – the censors are said to have promised not to write articles themselves again and no one at the paper is to be disciplined. Mr Xi has yet to snuff out the rebellion. Journalists at the Beijing News supported Southern Weekend by refusing to reprint the Global Times editorial.
But the party lacks an incentive to concede much to journalists. One of the reasons for Deng’s reforms, after all, was to reduce tensions after the Tiananmen crackdown by allowing economic freedom while retaining the party’s political grip.
The use of media for propaganda goes back a long way. In China in Ten Words, writer Yu Hua recalls “text riddled with revolutionary rhetoric and empty slogans, blathering endlessly on and on” and the beating of “black pens” – bourgeois writers – during the cultural revolution.
The party has a couple of self-interested reasons to permit some more freedom of expression. One is to combat corruption, which has undermined its legitimacy. Mr Xi has signalled his determination to stop officials taking bribes in return for allocating land and contracts – as did former party leaders. Journalists could expose such wrongdoing if freed from oversight.
Complete and effective censorship is also becoming harder. Journalists and others can evade censors using social media, and the Southern Weekend crackdown provoked widespread online protests. Yao Chen, an actress with the largest following on Sina Weibo, cited Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Ultimately, though, this is outweighed by the fear of instability. A group of academics, including Prof He, warned last month that without political reform China could “slip into the turbulence and chaos of violent revolution”. That was neatly calculated to play on the party’s insecurity, but I doubt it was taken to heart in Beijing.
For too many officials, a free press is itself equivalent to “turbulence and chaos”. Free expression could, they fear, escalate into popular protests and students massing again in Tiananmen Square. Censorship is a tried and trusted tradition, no matter how absurd it has become. The humiliation of a few black pens is a small price to pay.
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