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The Old Fears of China’s New Leaders

Jonathan Mirsky
I felt a shudder of déjà vu watching the mounting protests inside China this week of the Communist Party for censoring an editorial in Southern Weekend, a well-known liberal newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou.
Tiananmen Square student protest.jpg

Rene Burri/Magnum Photos

Students protesting in Tiananmen Square following the death of former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, Beijing, April, 1989

I felt a shudder of déjà vu watching the mounting protests inside China this week of the Communist Party for censoring an editorial in Southern Weekend, a well-known liberal newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou. It is all too similar to the disciplining in April 1989 of another Chinese paper, The World Economic Herald in Shanghai, and its editor, Qin Benli—events that played an important part in the gathering unrest in Tiananmen Square.

The offending World Economic Herald columns—and there were several—praised Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who had died in April 1989, and who had at the end of his life been accused by Senior Leader Deng Xiaoping of being soft on dissent. The authors of the articles demanded that Deng retract his denunciation of Hu. Shanghai’s Party secretary Jiang Zemin, soon to be the country’s president, declared, “It’s not appropriate to publish these sensitive views in the current situation.” He insisted that the paper’s views be brought to the Party’s attention “through proper internal channels,” but within a few days the articles had been widely circulated, both internally and abroad, leading to growing protests.

Now we have another case of censorship involving a newspaper that dares criticize the regime at a sensitive moment for China’s senior leadership. The original text of the Southern Weekend editorial ran in part: “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.” This was changed by Communist Party censors to “Dreams are our promise of what ought to be done…. We hope that in this year we can all come a step closer to our dreams.”

As the international press has reported over the past few days, revelations about this interference have led to outrage in China. On January 6, Ian Johnson reported in The New York Times that

The unrest at the influential newspaper Southern Weekend began last week when censors appeared to have toned down the paper’s New Year’s letter to readers—traditionally a call for progress in the new year. That caused journalists and their supporters—including students at nearby Sun Yat-sen University—to issue open letters expressing their outrage….By Sunday night, the protests had transformed into a real-time melee in the blogosphere—a remarkable development in a country where protests of all kinds are tightly controlled and the media largely know the boundaries of permissible debate.

The next day, Didi Tatlow, in a blog post for The International Herald Tribune website, wrote that

Something remarkable was under way in southern China on Monday: an open revolt at one of the country’s biggest and most popular news groups against the propaganda authorities, who apparently censored an outspoken New Year’s “greeting” in a major newspaper calling for constitutionalism and greater rights in China.

Johnson and Tatlow did not go so far as to suggest that the reaction to the censorship means that a fissure has opened under the Communist Party. But reporters on the radio and television here in London have used words like “unprecedented” to describe these events.

In fact, the experience of the World Economic Herald in 1989 may be instructive. In the weeks following that incident, increasing numbers of students and even some workers were going to Tiananmen Square to protest against the government and its denigration of Hu Yaobang. As is made clear in the secret discussions later published in The Tiananmen Papers, by May, these protests were already alarming the leadership at the highest levels. Bo Yibo, one of the retired party “Elders” led by Deng who wielded enormous influence (and father of Bo Xilai, the recently-disgraced senior Party member), said, “This is serious! We can’t let the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution happen again!” Soon Deng himself—whose entire career from the 1920s had been devoted to Party discipline in all its forms—noted, “We’ve never run into this before—a small handful of bad people infiltrating the student population and the masses and stirring them up with their slogans against corruption….for them this only a smoke screen. Their real aim is to topple the Communist Party and overthrow the socialist system.”

The crisis was heightened by the impending visit of Mikhail Gorbachev. Deng said, “Tiananmen is the symbol of the People’s Republic of China. The Square has to be in order when Gorbachev comes. We have to maintain our international image. What do we look like if the Square’s a mess?” In fact, Gorbachev had to be smuggled into the Great Hall of the People through the tunnels under the Square, which was now seething with demonstrators, including journalists from the People’s Daily marching with a long banner saying “No More Lies.”


Like many reporters in the Square, I felt that the Party had lost control and that the future of China might be democratic. The students were shouting “Down with the Communist Party” and “Down with Deng Xiaoping” and some of them, under the influence of Liu Xiaobo—the Nobel Peace Prize laureate now serving out an eleven-year prison sentence—were calling for democracy. What none of us knew was that on May 16, at a meeting of the Standing Committee, stiffened by a group of Elders, Deng said “if we don’t turn things around…all our gains will evaporate and China will take a historic step backward….After thinking long and hard about this, I’ve concluded that we should bring in the People’s Liberation Army and declare martial law in Beijing.”

In the meeting, Party Elder Wang Zhen laid out what in fact would happen: “These people are really asking for it… Give ‘em no mercy.” On the night of June 3-4, the 38th Army crashed into the Square and several hundred people were killed. On the morning of June 4 the parents of protestors were mowed down on the edge of the Square, and to this day Tiananmen is one of the neuralgic words forbidden—not always successfully—on China’s Internet.

Perry Link, the scholar of Chinese literature and frequent New York Review contributor, has written to me that,

The largest difference between 1989 and now, in my view, is that the popular understanding of what a free press can do is more mature now…. Now, thanks mostly to the Internet, journalists, netizens, and the public have a much more detailed grasp of what they can do, and want to do, with a free press. They know better how to use journalism to expose corruption, highlight injustice, organize public opinion to bring pressure, and so on. The threat to authoritarian power is greater now.

I agree wholly with what Mr. Link says. What I fear is that Xi Jinping, China’s newly anointed leader, and his colleagues on the new Politburo Standing Committee, refined and tested in the fires of Party discipline, will watch the Southern Weekend protests and find a line that cannot be crossed. So far, they are not facing a Tiananmen situation. According to reporters on the scene, the public response amounts to a few dozen exceptionally brave supporters of the paper, who are watched by a larger number of police, and messages of support posted on the Internet by some well-known celebrities like the blogger Han Han. If necessary, the authorities could make an example of a single person, as was the case with Liu Xiaobo, who was one of several hundred courageous Chinese who drew up a manifesto calling for democracy; or with the blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who was imprisoned for a few years and then exiled to rural house arrest until his recent escape and travel to the US. Or they could detain one or more people for a few months under close police supervision, followed perhaps by a period of house arrest, as they did with the artist Ai Weiwei. The Chinese Communist Party is skilled at estimating the extent of threats and while there is nothing it cannot do, at the moment exemplary arrests will probably deal with the problem in Guangzhou.

And then there is, of course, censorship itself. Some of the most feared—and long-serving—words in the Party’s ideological armory have now been brandished at those who join the Southern Weekend protests. As the Berkeley-based China Digital Times reports, new censorship instructions have now been issued to deal with the controversy:

Central Propaganda Department: Urgent Notice Concerning the Southern Weekend New Year’s Message Publication Incident: 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 Weekend has nothing to do with Guangdong Propaganda Department Head Tuo Zhen; (3) This incident’s development is due to the meddling of external hostile forces.

The words “Southern” and “Weekend” have now vanished from the Chinese Internet.

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