On Censorship, Control and Sinology
I’m leading off the comment in a new ChinaFile conversation. The full debate is here, and my contribution is below:
What’s Driving the Current Storm of Chinese Censorship?
By David Schlesinger
We must look back with equal measures of humility and wonder to the time when many journalists, Chinese intellectuals, and pundits predicted—or, more accurately, hoped—that incoming President Xi Jinping would lead an era of reform that would even touch on the political sphere. That was a time when Weibo was a cacophony of comment, when newspapers pushed the boundary of what had been acceptable, and when public discourse seemed an escape-valve for pressures and tensions within society.
Now, three years after Xi became president, we see a fundamentally changed environment. Commentators, protesters, feminists, lawyers, journalists, activists—the list of those arrested, detained, jailed, silenced, and threatened is long. Censorship in both new and old media spheres is tight.
Beyond the obvious conclusion that guesswork and wishful thinking about China and its leaders are usually wrong, what happened?
- The company he keeps. Xi fundamentally is conservative and controlling; this is made very clear by the appointments he makes. Simply take Lu Wei, the Internet Czar—in all my dealings with him when he was at Xinhua and I was at Reuters it was clear he was absolutely unyielding, tough, and nationalistic. No one would appoint someone like him to a job like that without knowing precisely the kind of heavy-handed line one would get—and wanting that badly.
- The Party he has. That Xi sees existential threats to the Communist Party in corruption and disloyalty is clear, yet he wants to preside over a triumphant 100th anniversary of the Party’s founding in 2021. In that context, this week’s stunning misprint by the official Xinhua agency that called Xi China’s “last” leader instead of its “top” leader is both poignant and a pointed reminder to him of the need to keep the press in line. In classic Sinological tea-leaf reading terms, the very fact Xi had to demand that the media be of the Party’s family (“be surnamed Party” 姓党) is a clear sign that it is currently not.
- The economy he wrestles with. It was easy to allow financial media (Bloomberg, Reuters, and The Financial Times from the West, Caijing and Caixin internally—to give just a few prominent examples) to be relatively free to publish in China when the news was seemingly always good. But once politics and economics become ever more intertwined and the news became bad if not dangerous—slowdowns, layoffs, protests, currency questions—then, to a man like Xi, the need to control, rectify, and regulate the media and the commentariat became urgent.
- And, finally, the effect that it has. A well-functioning media and commentariat (regardless of whether the surrounding society is free or democratic) provides an important measure of transparency and accountability. Without that—as this essay itself proves—we are reduced to guesswork, assumptions, and the tired tea-leaf reading tools of Sinology.