Sunday, October 19, 2014

Xi's clampdown on free speech has potential for backlash


The Xi administration in China has been tightening controls on free speech.

Xi Jinping, leader of the Chinese Communist Party, the state and the military, has solidified his power base by taking over as head of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, which was set up to implement structural reforms in five key areas: the economy, politics, culture, society and ecology. He also is head of the Central National Security Commission, whose purpose is to decide on and carry out policies concerning national security.

At the first meeting of the Central National Security Commission, held in April, Xi placed emphasis on holding fast to "the overall national security outlook," which is also known as "total security." Because Xi also touched on security in such spheres as culture, society and information, on top of traditional areas like diplomacy and military affairs, there are concerns that he may further clamp down on free speech under the pretext of ensuring that his wishes are carried out.

Xi is suppressing a power struggle within the party by wielding his authority to weed out corruption. His aim is to preserve the present system of one-party rule, but tougher restrictions on speech could instead represent a sense of crisis over the system's sustainability.

In May last year, an internal memo of a party propaganda organ on the "Seven Speak-Nots," phrases that must not be spoken, were divulged on the Internet. It listed topics not taught at universities, such as universal values, freedom of the press and civil society. The foreign media later reported on the same policy enumerated in "The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Document No. 9."

The Organization Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, which oversees party personnel and organizational reforms, issued a notification in July on training top officials. It names three matters warranting attention. The first is to "study and understand the spirit of the important speeches of Secretary-General Xi Jinping." The second is to "reinforce our faith in Marxism, and not lose our bearings amid the noise of Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society and so forth." The third is to "develop the exceptional traditional culture of China" and to "not be 'yes-men' to the West's ethical values." Following up on the "Seven Speak-Nots" and "Document No. 9," the notice is meant to keep a lid on actions that would further promote democratic values.

In August, the "Ten WeChat Rules," or "Weixin Ten Articles," were announced as a temporary set of regulations to control the Internet. China has more than 600 million people online, and the number of those using the instant messaging app "Weixin," known as "WeChat" in English, is soaring. In addition to a new rule requiring registration with one's real name when signing up for WeChat, the regulations state that nonofficial media accounts may not disseminate news or commentary on current affairs through the service.

The Chinese government is growing increasingly alarmed over the spreading influence of public opinion online.


The Xi administration's controls on free speech are intended to fend off such universal values as human rights, freedom and democracy that are held in high regard in the international community. As with media policy, I also pay attention to trends to implement tighter controls in the areas of research and education.

In July, the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science announced important National Social Science Foundation of China projects for fiscal 2014. Beijing disburses grant money for these research projects. Many of those the foundation has undertaken are on themes that support the policies of the Xi administration from the academic side, including "the spirit of Secretary-General Xi Jinping's important speeches," the "Chinese Dream" and "China's traditions."

Even the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated think tank, is having the screws tightened on it. A top official of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China criticized the academy in June for having problems with ideology. The academy's director then gave a speech in July on restricting academic freedom.

Meanwhile, thought control is becoming stronger in the realm of personnel training. China's leading universities have journalism and communications schools to train people working in the media, but now there is a restructuring under way throughout the country that begins with the school year starting this month.

Through this initiative, the Chinese media and propaganda departments of regional-level party committees will work with universities to establish and administer more such schools. The controls on the media are starting from the time people begin their training.

I believe the Xi administration's controls on free speech will become even stronger. On the surface they seem intended to maintain social stability, but the true purpose is to ensure the legitimacy of the Communist Party's rule and keep the current system in place.

However, the tougher the controls get, the more people might instead yearn for freedom.

Junko Oikawa has a Ph.D from Nihon University Graduate School in General Social and Cultural Studies. She has served as an expert researcher at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing and is now a visiting academic researcher at Hosei University, a visiting researcher at the Institute for Northeast Asian Studies at J. F. Oberlin University, and an adjunct instructor at Nihon University. Her areas of expertise are modern Chinese intellectuals, speech "space" in Internet forums, newspapers and magazines, and political culture studies


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