This week’s Time Magazine features a picture of the Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, along with the conspicuous title: “The Leader of the Unfree World”. It is an aggressive and unsubtle description of China’s power transition, and it accompanies the tagline “How China’s Xi Jinping will by the President who really matters”. Without reading the article (you have to be a subscriber to Time), I can say the title and cover speaks volumes.
The cover presents a brash view of Chinese governance, one that I found strangely at odds. In some ways, it is an unfortunately sensationalist tagline that fails to detect the nuances of Chinese life; most of the time, there is not a feeling of oppression or lack of freedom in this country. Yet in other ways, there is no denying the repression of certain free thought, particularly that which is critical of the government; it is no exaggeration to claim that Xi’s rise comes at a time when the world is watching as China addresses its civil rights issues.
Regardless of the cover’s mixed effects, I think its important to note that this leadership transition in China, which happens once a decade or less, is a pivotal moment in Chinese governance. In my conversations with politically informed Chinese, they commonly point to Xi’s reputation for being more liberal than the incumbent Hu Jintao. But will his leadership take action to address the necessary liberalization of free speech? Or will he follow his predecessors in puting a stop to any “disturbance” which is considered contrary to the interests of the Communist Party’s Politburo?
Even as I write this, there is the chilling effect of the ever-watching Chinese “Internet Police”, which are responsible for monitoring and censoring internet content which may hurt the State’s interests in maintaining social order. Many people know how Facebook and Twitter are blocked in Mainland China, and even the Chinese microblogging services, like Weibo, require registration using State-issued identification numbers so that writers can be effectively monitored. Its all a way that the state can push their agenda of a “Harmonious Society”:
“The expression ‘harmonious society,’ meanwhile, has been the dominant form of official rhetoric used by the Beijing authorities to bind fractured social relations in the decade from 2002 to 2012. ‘Harmonious society’ was formulated to deal head-on with the dramatic rise in social tensions triggered by China’s unprecedented and uneven economic development.” (Red Rising, Red Eclipse, 2012)
Much of the efforts to maintain a ‘harmonious society’ have come at the cost of civil liberties and free speech. In 2010-11 alone, there were approximately 100,000 mass protests against local abuses of power and injustices, and online dissent continues to grow. With this mounting unrest, its no surprise that the government has turned its attention to wei wen, or ‘stability maintenance’:
“Instead of addressing the problems and injustices, the Party leadership turned its focus on the protests and petitions these sparked among the restive masses themselves. It declared that people and groups who created social unrest, that is those who were protesting in increasing numbers against abuses of power and disparities in wealth, should be dealt with through socalled ‘stability maintenance’ operations.”
As the Chinese economic growth slows and as Chinese citizens and netizens become increasingly aware of their limited capabilities in a restricted society, it will be interesting to watch China’s approach to growing civil rights pressures. A few decades ago, the Communist Party and the central government–a dubious distinction–ushered in a revolutionary and transformative economic era by turning from traditional communist views in favor of the free market. Now, Xi Jinping faces a similar task, one that could be equally as transformative and no less revolutionary.