Following tradition, the year’s first edition of the Chinese-language weekly newspaper Southern Weekly contained a New Year’s message entitled “A Chinese Dream, A Constitutionalist Dream” calling for political reform. However, the Guangdong provincial propaganda department ordered the message revised, with propaganda chief Tuo Zhen (庹震) alledgedly making the alterations himself, overriding the editorial process and adding mistakes to the article, printed on the front page.
This angered the newspaper’s editors, who later released a letter of protest. Then, on the evening of Jan. 6, about a dozen of the editorial staff, including members of the editorial board, announced that they were going on strike, intensifying opposition against the government’s move.
This incident can be seen as highly significant.
The way the Guangdong provincial propaganda department treated the Southern Weekly is not an isolated incident. Prior to this, the Web site of the Beijing-based pro-reform journal Yanhuang Chunqiu was shut down without warning.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda chief Liu Yunshan (劉雲山) said in a recent speech that propaganda work must consolidate positive, healthy, mainstream thought and popular opinion while properly communicating the voice of the party and government. Such arguments are a direct extension of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and current President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) conservative policies.
Last week, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平), whom the New York Times believes to be a reformer, delivered a dumbfounding speech in which he openly declared that there must be no conflict between history before and after reform. This is almost an affirmation of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) rule, including the disastrous Cultural Revolution.
That this series of events occurred within one week shows that no event is accidental or isolated and that the Chinese authorities are tightening their grip on social control, especially over thought. It is clear that the CCP’s future policy will be center-left in nature.
These events also serve as a wake-up call for those who entertained fantasies about Xi leading the way toward political reform, and are a reminder that we cannot replace objective fact with subjective hope when analyzing political developments in China.
The public opposition during these protests was unprecedented. The editorial staff of the Southern Weekly showed great courage and their plight aroused strong reactions in Chinese civil society: People called for the protection of editorial independence and protested loudly against the CCP’s Propaganda Department.
Especially significant is that student groups who have long remained silent finally stood up, letting the public know their views on the issue.
Students across China — and even Chinese students in Taiwan — uploaded photos online to show their support for the Southern Weekly.
This opposition has been fueled by public dissatisfaction as hopes that a new regime under Xi have turned into pessimism.
It also highlights another phenomenon: Chinese civil society is growing at a fast pace and people are no longer avoiding direct opposition with the authorities. As a result, the Southern Weekly issue has moved the development of Chinese civil society a big step forward.
Finally, the continued strengthening of government control in the future may well be matched by a stronger public resolve in favor of opposition; certain to ignite further and greater clashes.
Wang Dan is a visiting assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at National Tsing Hua University.
Translated by Drew Cameron