We have all heard of the Great Firewall of China and are aware that access to Western media is restricted, however in many ways, the restrictions on media within China are of more interest, as those are the sources the average Chinese person will be accessing. This is especially true of print, television and radio news sources, as approximately 815 million Chinese people do not have internet access and therefore are highly unlikely to have any opportunity to access Western media, regardless of the Great Firewall.
It is therefore of great importance to see that the journalists at the major newspaper, the Southern Weekly, have gone on strike in protest of censorship. This newspaper is one of the few allowed a certain level of freedom to criticise the Chinese leadership, an outlet for limited criticism, but also perhaps a method by which problems can be highlighted, whilst preventing a totally free press. A new year’s editorial message, which called for the expansion of individual liberty and more checks and balances on executive power, was however censored by the Guangdong propaganda department, diluting much of the criticism.
The journalists of the Southern Weekly, as well as prominent scholars, have written letters to the Guangdong Communist Party Secretary, Hu Chunhua, demanding the resignation of the propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen. Even celebrities have been criticising the decision. Whilst the decision does rest with Hu Chunhua, it must be remembered that the new Communist Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, has been in the position for less than two months. This is the first major domestic issue that has occurred under Xi Jinping’s leadership and it seems likely that Hu Chunhua’s decision will be seen as a reflection of Xi Jinping’s position on reform, due to unofficial pressure from the General Secretary.
Further, Hu Chunhua is seen as a potential future Politburo member and will therefore want to be seen as singing from the same hymn sheet as the Politburo. Xi Jinping has previously been seen as prepared to openly discuss political and economic reforms and strongly opposed to abuses of power, however the allure of power and the undercurrents of political intrigue are such as they are that opinions can, and often do, change once people gain the top political positions. This may sound a little sceptical, even harsh, however let’s take things logically. The propaganda chief appears to have been a little overzealous on this occasion and whilst a significant player in Guangdong, would be easily removable for political expediency.
The General Secretary, with his openness to the potential for reform and the publicity this issue has produced, would seem likely to side with the journalists over the propaganda chief. If the propaganda chief is then retained by Hu Chunhua, it would therefore seem fair to deduce that either Xi Jinping is fairly relaxed about a slower pace of reform or he cannot guarantee enough control over the Politburo to push for such a decision, the latter seeming unlikely.
Xi Jinping can expect to be CPC General Secretary until 2022 and it seems probable that economic and political reform pressure will continue and intensify as people across China, especially the urban population, become more affluent. A major reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union is the failure of the State to improve economic quality of life; it seems unlikely that this will be the fate of China.
Instead, China has the potential risk that many Western countries contended with during industrialisation, the demand for opportunities to succeed and for governments to represent the people. The Western solution to this, a capitalist economic system and a liberal democratic political system, developed out of desperate poverty, revolutions and wars. The Chinese solution does not need to be the same to succeed, however pressure from the burgeoning middle classes for greater reform will require the Chinese leadership to respond and perhaps this first incident will give us a small glimpse at what we should expect from the Chinese leadership and Xi Jinping over the next ten years.