The recent incidents involving the Chinese Southern Weekly could encourage media freedom in China. Hu Chunhua (胡春華), the top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official in Guangdong Province, has become personally involved in finding a solution and workers at the weekly newspaper have called off their strike, saying they would not take the issue any further.
Huang Can (黃燦), editor-in-chief of the Southern Weekly, is to be relieved of his duties, followed soon after by Guangdong provincial propaganda official Tuo Zhen (庹震). Reuters has described this as a victory for the paper.
Regardless of how things end, this has been the most important moment for freedom of expression in China in decades.
The Southern Weekly is important: Even the New York Times has said it is “China’s most influential liberal paper” that is run by the CCP and that, with a circulation of more than 1.7 million copies, it is influential across China and internationally.
However, this reputation is the result of huge sacrifices over a long time. Since 2001, the editor-in-chief and reporters have faced constant discipline from the government. More recently, it has been viewed as having been pacified by the government, and its readership has dwindled. Thus, the recent fireworks at the paper came as a big shock to everyone.
It really is a big deal for a newspaper and its reporters to go on strike and resist authority in a country like China. Many people realized some time ago how freedom of expression in the Chinese-speaking world has become increasingly restricted.
This started in China and then progressed to Hong Kong. By 2008, when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) first took office, Beijing had extended its power to Taiwan, applying pressure on any media outlets, newspaper owners and reporters who did not cater to its interests via Taiwanese businesspeople in China, Hong Kong businesspeople, the Hong Kong government and even the Ma administration.
China’s new generation of leaders have already promised stricter controls on speech. While the Southern Weekly was being “taken care of” by the government, the Web site of the pro-reform journal Yanhuang Chunqiu in Beijing was also closed down.
During the 30th meeting of the 11th Plenum of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Dec. 28 last year, the Decision Regarding Strengthening Network Information Protection was passed, stipulating that Internet service providers must manage users’ online identities and require users to register with their real names.
Beijing’s authoritarian ways have intimidated the Taiwanese, giving rise to the recent student movement against media monopolization in Taiwan.
The new methods adopted by China’s Propaganda Department have scared Chinese liberals, including reporters, academics, members of the public and even entertainers, leading to the birth of the first nationwide movement for freedom of expression in China in decades.
The Southern Weekly and Yanhuang Chunqiu got in trouble because of their support for constitutionalism. This seems absurd, since in a speech on Dec. 4 last year, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) spoke highly of a constitution and its effects on law and order, with remarks that were later hailed as “Xi’s constitutional dream.”
His comments were reproduced word-for-word by the Southern Weekly and incorporated into the title of its original New Year’s front-page editorial, “A Chinese Dream, A Constitutionalist Dream,” before the title was later changed to “We are now closer than ever to our dream.” Of course, this “dream” was not for the implementation of a constitution.
It is precisely because of this absurdity that some regard this as a sign of a power struggle between senior CCP members. Regardless, we should focus on whether the constitutional dreams of the Southern Weekly and Yanhuang Chunqiu are the same as Xi’s dreams.
It is difficult to know where the truth lies. Some believe that those against the Southern Weekly are Maoist leftists and that Xi does not identify with them. Xi recently talked about “Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) Theory,” the “Scientific Outlook on Development,” former Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s (江澤民) “Three Represents” and human rights, but he did not mention Maoism.
Another group believes that the Southern Weekly and Yanhuang Chunqiu both emphasize how the separation of powers is a form of liberal democracy.
However, in his speech, Xi emphasized how social democracy equals democratic centralism. These two values are diametrically opposed. Furthermore, Xi has praised Mao Zedong (毛澤東) on other occasions and also recently stated that no future reforms can be isolated from past ones.
These latest events give one hope for democracy and freedom in China. However, so many people are placing the potential success of this on Xi alone. This is not how democracy works.
Xi may come across as being warm and sincere with a strong sense of traditional Confucian thought, but it is difficult to know what he is really thinking. Apart from trying to remain optimistic about the future of democracy in China, there is really nothing we can do. The path to Chinese democracy may seem enticing, but it will not be easy.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Drew Cameron