Since taking office three years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been stepping up political regimentation, including a tighter grip on thought education. Now he is increasing control of the media and the Internet. The strict control of speech and media activities may reflect Xi’s desire to maintain social stability as China endures an economic slowdown. Such moves may also point to the difficulty Xi is experiencing in his bid to maintain the Communist Party’s rule as the country confronts various domestic as well as diplomatic challenges.
While Xi’s crackdown on rampant corruption among both high- and low-ranking officials may have the support of the general public, his stringent control of speech and media outlets could increase people’s frustration — a potential source of social instability. When a nation becomes economically advanced, the usual course that follows is the pursuit of democratization in the political sphere. Xi should keep in mind that his moves could bring unexpected effects.
China’s leadership has taken a series of actions to tighten its grip in areas related to free speech, human rights and religion. It put into effect a state security law last July and an anti-terrorism law in January. It announced a regulation in February to exclude foreign capital-funded companies from the business of selling e-books. The Chinese People’s Congress, which ended its latest session in mid-March, withheld adopting new laws to control foreign nongovernmental organizations or Internet security but decided to treat them as “major tasks” to be tackled in the coming year. Japan, the United States, Canada and Germany had expressed concerns over the foreign NGO legislation, which would have placed them under the surveillance of public security agencies and would have required them to regularly submit reports on their funding and activities.
In February, Xi visited three major domestic media outlets — the Communist Party organ the People’s Daily, the state-run Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television — and stressed the importance of guiding public opinion through them, which the Communist leadership calls the party’s “throat and tongue.”
After these visits he send a “greeting” to the people through the popular social media website Sina Weibo that listed anti-poverty measures, stricter discipline among high-ranking officials and a PR campaign to influence opinion outside of China as the areas in which public opinion must be given correct guidance.
In early March, two articles on a news website in which a professor at the national Shanghai University of Finance and Economics underlined the need for freedom of expression were deleted. The professor is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body composed of representatives of the Communist Party and other organizations as well as independents. Later, a journalist linked to a letter that briefly appeared on the Web — criticizing Xi for his policy errors and calling for his resignation — was detained in Beijing as he prepared to board a flight to Hong Kong.
Xi’s regimentation policy is believed to be based on Document No. 9, which was leaked in August 2013 after it was secretly issued in the spring of that year by the General Office of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. It bans the promotion of Western constitutional democracy, civil society, universal values and the Western concept of journalism among others on the grounds that they undermine the party’s leadership and social foundation.
There are signs that the government’s control has been extended even to the sphere of economic statistics. On Feb. 18, the People’s Bank of China suddenly canceled a monthly announcement of foreign exchange fund balance at banks, raising the suspicion that China wants to hide the true situation of its foreign exchange reserves. Kyodo News quoted a Chinese academic as saying that scholars have difficulty in retrieving information from the Internet.
Xi may have a sense of crisis that the various problems occurring in the midst of the economic slowdown, such as the wide gap between the rich and poor and environmental destruction, will increase people’s frustration and discontent, weakening his party’s power to unify the population under its rule.
It is easier in China today more than ever to get information on what’s happening outside the country as the number of Chinese traveling abroad for tourism and study soars and Internet usage expands. More than half the country’s population now has online access. It comes as no surprise that Beijing is worried that the foundation of the country’s one-party rule could be shaken if the popular appeal of Western democratic values grows.
The Communist Party’s ideology sections, the state security authorities, the police and the military may be imbued with the idea that forces and elements hostile to the party’s rule are actively seeking to undermine it. But the more they crack down on human rights lawyers, journalists and foreign activists, the more it will deepen domestic frustration and other countries’ distrust of China. Such attempts could also likely to damage China’s ties with other nations. Democratization efforts will be indispensable if China is to attain economic and social stability at home as well as to maintain friendly relations with the world’s other leading economies — all of which are democracies.