Managing Speech and Thought in China
WASHINGTON—Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping began an anti-corruption campaign soon after he assumed power in Nov. 2012 that has received much media attention, both within and outside China. It appears to have helped him consolidate his power.
Less well known is Xi’s campaign against the malignant influences of “Western values” that is affecting his policies toward the Internet, the university, Chinese media, arts and entertainment, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations.
At the Wilson Center on April 2, Xi’s renewed emphasis on propaganda and ideology was the subject of a forum, “Do Western Values Threaten China? The Motives and Methods of Xi Jinping’s Ideology Campaign.”
Robert Daly, director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, and host of the discussion, said the threat of Western values must be important to Xi. The new national security commission, which he heads, is taking it up, and it is getting the same level of attention as the topics of terrorism and separatism.
This ideological campaign has its origins in the Chinese communiqué, called Document No. 9, issued in April 2013, which spoke about the dangers of Western thought. It enumerated “seven unmentionable topics,” said Daly, which were “not to be freely addressed in the media or the academy.”
The general idea was to tell party members to become vigilant regarding alien ideas, institutions, and people that threaten Party rule.
The first “unmentionable” is Western constitutional democracy. Other subversive anti-China thoughts discussed were: universal values, civil society, neo-liberal economics, and Western concepts of journalism. Also, one should not question socialism in China or the official history of the communist party.
Across China, Communist Party cadres attended meetings to hear the secret edicts warning them that the Party’s grip on power could be wrestled away if they were not mindful of the dangers. Document 9 was issued by the central Party office, but was not openly published, according to the New York Times.
Without doubt, the statement must have had the approval of the communist leader Xi Jinping, who ascended to power just five months before.
Consequences flowed from the seven edicts immediately. In 2013, the Times reported,” Since the circular was issued, party-run publications and Web sites have vehemently denounced constitutionalism and civil society, notions that were not considered off limits in recent years. Officials have intensified efforts to block access to critical views on the Internet.”
ChinaFile, which translated the document into English, states that a “harsh crackdown against human rights lawyers, media outlets, academics, and other such independent thinkers” ensued following its dissemination.
Anne-Marie Brady said at the forum that it’s important “to look past the rhetoric and look at the [regime’s] actions.” Brady is the foremost Western expert on Chinese communist propaganda. She is the author of two books on this subject—”Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China” (2007), and “China’s Thought Management” (2014).
Brady said that as Xi Jinping has assumed political power, “there is a new broom here, need to do some tightening up, but it’s not anti-West.”
Brady emphasized that when Xi and senior officials make strong statements warning against the pernicious influence of the “ideology of Western anti-China forces,” it is not a new concept and has been said before. Brady said one major difference from the Mao era is that the people haven’t had to memorize their leader’s official statements.
She quoted extensively from a paper she wrote for the Financial Times that was published March 30. Xi is more likely to get results compared to his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin because he has much more control over the political system in China, she said.
Xi referred to the breakup of the Soviet Union in a secret speech in December 2012 in which he attributed the cause to a crisis in belief—”the people had lost faith in the Communist Party,” Brady said. Xi invoked the lesson of Mikhail Gorbachev whose policies disintegrated the Soviet bloc, he said. Brady said that the lesson according to Xi is to be guarded in unleashing the power of the masses, the mistake that Gorbachev made.
Xi’s objective is to strengthen “popular support for Party rule” and “reset the boundaries of public expression,” she said. The activists might have to pull back a bit. … clearly this is a time that is not as free and open as before.”
Interpretation of Xi’s Ideological Campaign
We also need to be aware of efforts by the regime to shape the way the world views China. The Chinese leaders are aware that China has an image problem. Brady was astonished to see that the Chinese word “xuanchuan” is rendered into English by the Google translator as “publicity.” She said the dictionary definition of xuanchuan is propaganda; the Google translation shows the insidious way the CCP influences the West.
Richard McGregor, former Beijing and Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times, suggested that Xi’s conduct on the anti-corruption campaign and the ideological purity effort can be understood as a “backlash” to the tense time in 2012 when he transitioned to his position, which was not smooth as his predecessor’s. He said Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, who was “head of the secret police apparatus” and a member of the Politburo, plotted against Xi, and attempted a purge.
McGregor argued that many in the West operate under the illusion that somehow the Chinese Communist Party can be reformed. “The CCP is not some half-way house system which is getting gradually reformed and gradually democratized in the way that would make it more recognizable now in a Western democratic system.” He said his view is that the communist leaders believe their party is “entirely intact and self-contained” and just needs to be “constantly refined” and “strengthened.”
Documentary Permitted, Later Banned
The recent banning of the environmental video, “Under the Dome,” illustrates the new direction. Daly noted that the film, before it had been banned, was “made, shown, and praised by the Minister of the Environment.” The film that urged citizens to take personal action to stop pollution and economic waste was unacceptable to the regime which insists on controlling reform.
“The fact that this independent documentary could be made and receive the endorsement of the environment ministry shows that Mr. Xi … is not trying to completely suppress public opinion, but keep it within acceptable boundaries,” Brady wrote.
Another recent example of Xi’s tightening on dissent is the detention of five feminist activists, who were detained for planning a protest against sexual harassment.
“The news was shocking to me because detention of young feminists in China was basically unheard of, said Zhao Sile, a Chinese freelance writer and columnist, quoted from an interview by the Financial Times.
The young women, all in their mid-twenties, were only going to hand out anti-sexual harassment flyers in buses on March 8, International Women’s Day, according to Zhao. Other accounts included subways and reported that they wanted to put up stickers in public transportation. However, Zhao said that officials involved with “stability maintenance” tend to “repress all forms of citizen activism.”
Brady predicted that new measures designed to tighten things up are likely to invite “more resistance, not less.”
Indeed, push-back is likely what Chinese feminists will do. Zhao’s statement implied that the “party-state” will not end their civic activism. “The detentions have indeed created some panic and tension, but the activists have not retreated. They are only thinking about how to sustain the movement and further expand it.”