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In a country that regularly censors opposing viewpoints, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s push for “common prosperity” has triggered something unusual: a spirited public policy debate.

On the one side are those sharing the views of blogger Li Guangman, whose commentary last month calling Xi’s regulatory crackdown a “profound revolution” was published widely by major state-run media outlets. It proclaimed “the capital market will no longer become a paradise for capitalists to get rich overnight” and “all those who block this people-centered change will be discarded.”

Countering that argument are those like Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalistic Global Times newspaper, who rebutted Li’s piece by saying the planned changes were a result of unified policies from top leaders. The goal, he said, was gradual social progress rather than a sweeping campaign that amounted to some sort of second Cultural Revolution.

The competing viewpoints in China’s tightly controlled media space — in which journalists are regularly locked up — point to internal confusion over just how far Xi plans to go in reining in “disorderly capital expansion.” The result has been a series of seemingly conflicting statements that are giving investors whiplash as listed companies in China see their value collectively drop by trillions of dollars.

Any discord in Chinese officialdom raises questions about a power struggle, particularly given it’s all happening ahead of a twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle at which Xi is expected to be granted another five years in power. Yet more fundamentally, it represents uncertainty over how China can balance two key goals: creating more balanced growth to bolster the party’s support among the masses, and spurring the technological breakthroughs needed to outpace the U.S. as global tensions rise.

Victor Gao, an interpreter for Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader who ushered in market-based policies in the 1980s that unleashed the country’s economic potential, called the debate over common prosperity “highly sensitive” and warned that messages made from top leaders could be “exaggerated” as they filtered through China’s sprawling bureaucracy.

“We need to guard against the danger of overplay of this campaign of common prosperity,” Gao told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday, adding that it could stifle business and hurt China’s competitiveness. “I personally do not want to see a situation where, for example, the pursuit of common prosperity will hurt innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, because that is exactly what China needs now as well as in the years to come.”

Over the past few weeks, more top Chinese officials have sought to reassure businesses that they aren’t sweeping away the private sector. Vice Premier Liu He, Xi’s top economic aide who led China’s trade talks with the U.S., on Monday said policies supporting the private economy haven’t changed “and will not change in the future.”

In China, what started last year as a push to rein in Big Tech monopolies has since expanded across a wave of industries, culminating in a July move to ban tutoring companies from making a profit. | REUTERS
In China, what started last year as a push to rein in Big Tech monopolies has since expanded across a wave of industries, culminating in a July move to ban tutoring companies from making a profit. | REUTERS

But it’s easy to see why people are confused. What started last year as a push to rein in Big Tech monopolies has since expanded across a wave of industries, culminating in a July move to ban tutoring companies from making a profit. Following measures to tackle health care costs, labor conditions for wage earners and tax evasion among wealthy individuals, Xi last week “reviewed and approved” more actions to fight monopolies, battle pollution and shore up strategic reserves.

Complicating matters is the government’s push to reshape the country’s youth. China imposed limits on the number of hours kids can play video games, and Xi on Sept. 1 told young cadres in a speech that good Communists will “never be spineless cowards.” Two days later, China’s broadcasting regulator moved to ban film stars with “incorrect” politics, cap salaries and rein in fan culture — particularly “sissy and other distorted aesthetics.”

‘Worshiping Western culture’

In his “profound revolution” commentary, Li noted that “the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position worshiping Western culture.” The language prompted some commentators to compare the piece to the first dazibao — or big-character poster — that sparked the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, which led to mass killings and economic destruction that lasted for a decade until his death in 1976.

Li’s article likely caught the attention of mid-level, left-leaning officials who ordered it to be carried by the websites of major outlets including the People’s Dailiy, Xinhua News Agency and CCTV, said Feng Chucheng, a partner at research firm Plenum in Beijing. But, he added, Hu likely issued the rebuttal when leaders realized it was being misinterpreted as the return of the Cultural Revolution.

“The entire bureaucracy is fragmented and most people within it don’t get the full picture,” Feng said. “So when it comes to sudden policy announcements by the top leader such as common prosperity, there is indeed a lot of betting and guessing going around.”

In a commentary, blogger Li Guangman noted that
In a commentary, blogger Li Guangman noted that “the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position worshiping Western culture.” | BLOOMBERG

Lack of clarity

When Hu’s piece was published, a Chinese official based in Hong Kong shared the link with Bloomberg News and encouraged it to be circulated broadly, saying his interpretation of events in China was “closest to the power center.”

Ambiguous messaging can also bring benefits. Chinese tech giants have been falling over themselves to donate large sums of money to assist with the campaign of common prosperity, while other companies are taking pre-emptive action to avoid the government’s wrath.

“It is this mentality of experimentalism,” said Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank China. “More clarity will come out over time, but right now I don’t think the central government wants to have a clear definition of it.”

But a lack of clarity also entails risk. One article posted by a liberal Chinese economist, who warned excessive government intervention would lead to “common poverty,” is no longer available online.

The timing could be related to key Communist Party meetings — one in November and next year’s party congress — in which Xi would like an affirmation of his policies and more time in power, according to Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“The disagreement is among the leftists on how far and how fast the party should go in the leftist direction, and if the leftist turn is good or bad for China,” he said. “I see elements of resistance and discomfort but not organized opposition.”

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