Winds of change are sweeping through China

By Daniele Pestilli on January 15, 2013
Image credit: Osrin [] (CC)

There is an undeniable tantalizing wind of change sweeping through China in recent years.

During a massive unanimous online appeal for organized protests against China’s stifling one-party system in February 2011, which was inspired by the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution, citizens from a dozen Chinese cities gathered each weekend chanting pro-democracy and pro-freedom slogans. The protests resulted in a good number of imprisonments, including those of almost 40 leading Chinese activists. The participation of young and old, including Tiananmen Square dissidents such as Ding Mao, sent a bold message to Chinese authorities: the Communist Party must allow more freedom to its people or step down.

Then, from September to December 2011, Chinese authorities offered a rare concession to the villagers of Wukan upon their protests against local officials who were selling farmland to a Hong Kong developer who made a hefty profit from the deal, without their consent. To appease the villagers, Beijing granted official recognition of Wukan’s local committee to maintain law and order in the village. This was the first time an elected governing body received an official mandate from the Communist Party since 1949, the Party's inception.

Most recently, in the southern city of Guangzhou, people have gathered to protest the Chinese one-party system’s restrictiveness once again.

This occurred after a local newspaper, the Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), was preparing to publish its 2013 New Year’s edition. According to The Economist, the editorial was a pungent reminder to the Communist Party that its citizens yearn for those freedoms that the Chinese constitution allegedly guarantees. However, it was meticulously redrafted by censors and essentially turned into a homage to the party. A translated excerpt from the original article read: “This is an age in which dreams can be grasped…. Only if loudly and confidently… power is effectively checked can citizens voice their criticisms of power.” The censored version was paraphrased as such: “Dreams are our promise of what ought to be done…. We hope that this year we can all come a step closer to our dreams.”

Although the protests that took place outside the Southern Weekend’s office were rather contained, totaling only about two-hundred participants on two separate days, the relatively relaxed attitude of the authorities towards the protesters was unusual. Banners with the text “Free China” were not confiscated, and dissenting voices do not appear to have been extinguished as heavy-handedly as in the past.

One of the possible reasons for this, as The Economist suggests, is that authorities may be divided on how to deal with this situation. In fact, recently appointed leader of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping, made Guangdong province his first visit outside the capital upon rising to his position, given the region’s economic importance to China since the ‘80s. In other words, Xi may see value in gradually reforming southern China – and perhaps being more permissive to those who wish to speak their minds is part of his plan.

But this view might be too optimistic: as an article by the Asia Society elucidates, recent moves to further tighten control of the web, as well as efforts by state media to label the work of Southern Weekend’s articles as the work of “traitors,“ suggest that Xi is an unlikely reformer.

China’s censorship machine is incredibly swift. As the China Digital Times reported on January 7th, censorship instructions have already been spelled out by the Central Propaganda Department:

Responsible Party committees and media at all levels must be clear on three points related to this matter: (1) Party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle; (2) This mishap at Southern Weekly has nothing to do with Guangdong Propaganda Department Head Tuo Zhen; (3) External hostile forces are involved in the development of the situation. Every responsible work unit must demand that its department’s editors, reporters, and staff discontinue voicing their support for Southern Weekly online. Starting tomorrow, media and websites in all locales must prominently republish the Global Times editorial ‘Southern Weekly’s ‘Message to Readers’ Is Food for Thought Indeed.’

And just so, the words “Southern” and “Weekend” have vanished from the Chinese internet.

Despite the ongoing quest for censorship, what we can infer from the outbursts of pro-democratic movements in recent years is that a large part of China wants to change.

Many Chinese, including the country's leaders and their offspring, have lived and studied at some of the finest Western academic instutions in the world. And it is becoming progressively harder to pull the wool over people’s eyes regarding the benefits of a one-party system versus a democracy. More broadly, it is simply becoming too hard to hide the apparent. For instance, the dangerous levels of pollution that have blanketed entire Chinese cities in recent days are being written about with unprecedented self-critique and honesty. Officially sanctioned headlines are being published such as “A Beautiful China Starts With Healthy Breathing.” As the New York Times commented today, the China Youth Daily, a state-run newspaper, also published a vitriolic article that prompted its readers to rethink China’s growth strategy and future, masking a critique of China’s underlying system behind the more visible reality of the toxic pollution. The article’s headline read: “Lack of Responsive Actions More Choking Than the Haze and Fog.”

Pressured by an abundance of Chinese netizens, the central authorities have certainly become more transparent than Beijing’s air in their releases of data regarding the levels of toxic fine particles. And it is these very netizens who are now changing the conversation that was once imposed by the Communist Party’s authoritarianism.

Indeed, the conversation is taking an entirely different slant, because it is starting from the newspapers and spreading into the blogosphere. Protests in recent years differ from the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in that social media has waltzed into the spotlight, and is playing an ever-expanding role in the delivery of news and the proliferation of ideas. The internet has shown people they can be better organized, more focused and more effective in their calls for a freer China. It has shown that nobody’s ideas are too small to spread. It is at times like these that more people should be reminded of the validity of the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s words: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”