Academics, journalists and other free-thinking intellectuals have taken the bold step of calling for more freedom of expression and less Internet censorship. Others want to resuscitate long-stalled political reform. For the first time since Xi Jinping took power in late 2012, the official media have also run articles that seem to challenge the supremacy of the President and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the Chinese tradition, open expressions of dissent usually occur when major factions of the party are engaged in a power struggle. Given the overall conservative nature of the leadership, however, it is unlikely that a new round of what late patriarch Deng Xiaoping called “thought liberation” is in the offing.
In June, seventy-eight scientists from the elite Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and other top scientific and engineering institutes sent a petition to the CCP calling on General Secretary Xi to lift censorship of the Internet. The petition said Chinese researchers’ failure to have access to the Internet would “greatly impede progress of science and technology in China.” The official China Science News quoted one academic as saying that “stringent Internet control has resulted in severe losses to people engaged in scientific research” (Voice of America, June 6; Radio Free Asia, June 2).
This show of defiance is notable as President Xi’s power struggle with other factions of the party—particularly the Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction headed by former president Hu Jintao and the Shanghai Faction led by ex-president Jiang Zemin—intensifies in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress scheduled for next year (China Brief, May 11).
Even bolder than the academics’ petition was a recent article in People’s Daily that was construed as casting indirect aspersions on Xi’s dictatorial statecraft. In a piece entitled “Absolutist egomania will bring a nasty demise to top cadres,” commentator Hou Lihong appeared to zero in on Xi’s power grab and one-upmanship. Although Hou cited mostly regional officials in her article, it is obvious that her critique could also be applied to supreme leader Xi. For example, Hou warned that yibashou (“No. 1 bosses”; 一把手) often made the mistake of “megalomania and the wanton use of power.” “If the big boss regards his public authority as private power and looks upon own his words as policy, this egoistic use of power becomes very dangerous and will lead to a dismal end for the top leader,” Hou noted (People’s Daily, June 13; Radio French International, June 13).
That the People’s Daily dared run such an article has been attributed to behind-the-scenes maneuvers by Politburo Standing Committee (PBOC) member in charge of ideology and propaganda Liu Yunshan, who is considered a protégé of former president Jiang (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], June 17). Xi’s dissatisfaction with Liu was evidenced by the president’s visit to the People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and CCTV last February, in which party chief called upon the three top media to xingdang (姓党) or “take the CCP as its surname.” Xi’s implicit criticism was that these mouthpieces had deviated from instructions laid down by the zhongyang, or central party authorities led by the General Secretary (People’s Daily, March 9; Xinhua, February 19).
In what is seen as an attempt to rein in PBSC member Liu, President Xi earlier this year asked the Central Commission for Disciplinary Commission (CCDI) to assign a Central Inspection Team to the Department of Propaganda, which reports to Liu. The CCDI is headed by PBSC member Wang Qishan, a princeling who is considered Xi’s closest ally. It is significant that instead of focusing on issues related to corruption, Wang Huaichen, the head of the inspection team, dwelled on the poor ideological standards of propaganda officials. In a report that was carried by most central media in June, Wang noted that cadres in the department “do not have a high political alertness, and there are discrepancies [with central edicts] in implementation of policies.” Wang, a former head of the Political-Legal Department of the Sichuan Province Party Committee, also faulted the Propaganda Department for its failure to observe the “four consciousness” (“consciousness about politics; consciousness about the whole situation; consciousness about [obeying] the core [of the party]; and consciousness about seeing eye-to-eye [with the zhongyang].” The last two requirements—about cleaving to the “core” and the zhongyang—are understood to represent Xi’s demands that his edicts must be followed (China.com, June 8; Sina.com, June 8).
Xi’s well-documented disagreement with Premier and PBSC member Li Keqiang—who heads the CYL Faction—has also resulted in a rare clash of views in the official media. A case in point is the now-famous interview given by an “authoritative figure” to People’s Daily that was splashed across its front page on May 9. The authoritative figure, widely thought to be Liu He, Xi’s chief economic adviser, disputed views given by the State Council (China’s cabinet, which is headed by Premier Li) that the Chinese economy had attained a “rosy start” in the first quarter of this year. “The entrenched contradictions in the economy have not been defused, while new problems are more than anticipated,” the article noted. The authoritative figure was quoted as saying the Chinese economy was headed toward an “L-shaped trajectory” and that this trend would last for “more than one, two years.” He then laid into government officials who favored aggressive monetary and fiscal policy to boost the economy through means including infrastructure projects that are bankrolled by loans. “Our economy has sufficient potentials and resilience… the speed of growth will not fall much even without stimulus,” he concluded. As to what can be done, the authoritative figure suggested measures recommended by President Xi: “lowering [production] capacity, reducing inventory, deleveraging, cutting production costs and boosting weak sectors” (People’s Daily, May 9; New Beijing Post, May 9).
Li’s forces struck back within a week. Guo Tongxin (a collective pen name for the National Statistical Bureau of the State Council) published an article in the May 16 edition of People’s Daily arguing that “our economy has attained a relatively good start [and that] it is being run in a stable manner…The economic structure is being optimized and people’s livelihood has improved.” “The national economy has on the whole followed a steady track and progress has been made in the midst of stability.” The piece also denied that economic growth had been attained due to over-leveraging, or excessive debt accumulation. It noted that steady expansion of the economy was due to “the ignition of reform, the boosting of innovation, and the push of [structural] transformation” (Xinhua, May 16; People’s Daily, May 16).
Apparently because of the “struggle between the two lines” at the apex of the party, a number of academics have expressed dissimilar opinions on the future directions of the economy. While some support the stance favored by Xi and Liu He, quite a few experts have faulted the views of the “authoritative figure” as contained in the May 9 People’s Daily article. For example, well-known Fudan University economist Zhang Jun pointed out that “boosting economic growth is more important than deleveraging.” Yao Yang, an expert on development economics at Peking University, stressed that excessive curtailment of capacity would hurt economic growth: “Lowering production capacity, reducing inventory and deleveraging will depress overall demand and hurt economic expansion” (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], June 9; Phoenix TV Net, June 8).
Free-thinking intellectuals who were hemmed in by Xi’s apparent restoration of Maoist norms have also spoken out. This is true particularly of retired cadres who once worked for former party secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, who are still revered as the CCP’s icons of liberalization. For example, Li Rui, who once served as Mao’s personal secretary, pointed out in an article this spring that without overall political reform, the country would remain backward and it would be unable to claim a leading place in the community of nations. “Reform of the party and improvement in society depends on science and democracy,” Li wrote. “These are universal values” (VOA, April 18; Sohu.com, April 18). In a similar vein, former head of the America Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Zi Zhongxun noted that “when there is absence of freedom of expression and rule of law, coupled with severe social inequality, social elite such as public intellectuals should speak out to uphold justice” (360doc.com [Beijing], June 19; Sohu.com, June 17).
Despite the challenges he faces, Xi is still the most powerful CCP leader since Mao Zedong. Political circles in Beijing are watching whether the supreme leader will allow this relatively daring outpouring of opinions to continue. On the one hand, it is in the vested interest of the party General Secretary to at least project a façade of unity within the party as preparations for the Congress are switching into high gear. On the other hand, if Xi succeeds in marginalizing his political foes, he may soon be tempted to reintroduce Chairman Mao’s notorious “one voice chamber.”
Xi’s ambivalence regarding giving more leeway to intellectuals is reflected in two recent talks. In a seminar with intellectuals, model workers and youth representatives in Hebei, Anhui Province last April, Xi sounded a conciliatory note to members of the educated class. “To bravely set trends and to spearhead innovation is the requisite characteristic of the great masses of intellectuals,” the President said. “We should enthusiastically welcome the ideas and criticisms of intellectuals provided that they are well motivated,” Xi said, adding that the party should adopt the “right” kind of suggestions from the educated classes. “We should be more tolerant and magnanimous toward ideas and criticisms that are off the mark or even wrong,” Xi argued. Using a well-known Chinese proverb, Xi said the authorities should not “grab hold of the pigtails [of intellectuals], pin [pejorative] labels on them or hit them with sticks” (Xinhua, April 30; South China Morning Post, April 30).
That Xi is not prepared to give intellectuals a significantly longer leash, however, is evident from his much-noted speech on the role of philosophy and the social sciences in nation-building. While talking to an elite group of scholars and professors in May, Xi pointed out that they must always regard Marxism as the be-all and end-all of knowledge. “The facts have proven that, irrespective of changing times… Marxism still demonstrates the powerful force of a scientific theory and it still occupies the high ground in terms of truth and morality,” Xi said. Academics, researchers and cadres in general should “self-consciously insist upon the guidance of Marxism,” Xi noted. “They should have clear-cut theoretical consciousness, resolute political beliefs, and a scientific way of thinking” based on Marxism and socialism with Chinese characteristics, the party chief said (People’s Daily, May 18). Yet taking the old road of orthodoxy could stifle creativity and innovation that the CCP badly needs to inject new momentum to reform, which remains the most potent pillar of legitimacy for the 95-year-old party.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression?,” which is available for purchase.