Xi’s consolidation of power will ultimately be China’s undoing

The president’s increasing authoritarianism is unwise and will only foster dissent and protest in the long-term, says John Lloyd.         

XI Jinping — president of China, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, chair of the Central Military Commission, chief of the military’s Joint Operations Command Centre, chairman of the committees on cyber security, economics and finance, among others — has a new honour that will linger long after he leaves office.

China’s Communist Party has decided to insert his view of the world — ‘Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism With Chinese Special Characteristics’ — into the constitution. He will be only the second leader, after Mao Zedong, to be so honoured during his lifetime.

Xi stands supreme. Yet, that accumulation of authority carries a large threat, both to his power and to his state.

Xi’s goals are to strengthen China’s economy and military power and to lead a sometimes-ferocious campaign against corruption, and to bring the news media back under the tightest control. Inserting both his thoughts and his name in the constitution will further delegitimise critical commentary and unflattering revelations.

Anything that contradicts Xi’s official line will be an attack on the constitution. Xi wants to render independent journalism impossible and choke off China’s liveliest medium of criticism — social media. Blocking these arteries could be his biggest mistake.

Xi’s desire to curb the media is not new. In 2013, the then-new leader gave a speech to the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference in Beijing. He argued that workers in propaganda and ideology — broadly speaking, journalists and their minders — had become so undisciplined that some bordered on committing treason. His subsequent actions have been consistent with this belief.

In a book published earlier this year, I wrote: “one phrase in his speech was particularly telling. Xi said that ‘we must unwaveringly persist in the principle that the Party manages the media, persist in politicians running newspapers periodicals, TV stations, and news websites’.”

The words “politicians running newspapers” were a direct quotation from Mao, the founder of communist rule, still venerated in spite of murderous policies that condemned millions. The phrase enshrined the dogma that politicians — the Party — are the final judge of what journalism can say. Journalism was far too important to be left to journalists.

In the past five years, those newspapers and TV programmes which had enjoyed some autonomy — granted by Deng Xiaoping, who was in charge of economic and social reform from the late 1970s to the late 1980s — have lost nearly all of their latitude.

Journalists no longer can undertake any investigation not expressly permitted by the all-powerful Publicity (formerly Propaganda) Department. Usually, that only allowed for investigating the affairs of someone the Party wished to destroy.

The most adventurous newspapers — such as the Southern Metropolitan Daily and Southern Weekend of Guangzhou — were muzzled in 2013.

Xiao Shu, a former editorialist on the Southern Weekend, wrote that the appointment of a new, severe head of Party propaganda in Guangdong, the region in which Guangzhou is the capital, meant that “the press in Guangdong retreated into its darkest period since the start of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening-up’ policies in the late 1970s.”

That was just the start. The monopoly broadcaster, CCTV, dropped or toned-down all its investigative and analytical programmes. Journalists, who were previously only dismissed if they were deemed to have gone too far, were again imprisoned.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 38 journalists were in prison in China in 2016, second behind Turkey for the number of reporters jailed. Writers for foreign news media find it harder to get visas and harder to do investigative reporting.

Yet for Xi, the largest threat are social media, which have become more popular as approved journalism has been restricted.

The online postings are often critical; in Foreign Policy magazine this month, an anonymous author wrote that “even a cursory glance at China’s new social media revealed that officials were seen as skinning the people, not serving them.”

These public comments could not be allowed in China. This autumn, the authorities began investigating the most popular messaging services — Weibo, Wechat, and Baidu — and found that the services were exchanging “terror-related content… rumours… and pornography.”

Yet, as this repression continues and deepens, the pushback from society grows, and determined journalists and filmmakers continue to catalogue the darker sides of China.

In 2012, a film called High Tech, Low Life followed bloggers on bicycles examining government censorship and the harsh and yawning divisions in Chinese society.

The gamble Xi is taking, in hugging all power to him, is that he and the forces he controls can limit any such developments.

But that will not last. Corruption, pollution, inequality, interfering bureaucracy and controlled media will become prompts for protest. Xi’s choice to strengthen authoritarian rule will prove to be a large error, for himself, his country, and for the world in which China is such a crucial actor.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including Whatthe Media Are Doing to Our Politics and Journalism in an Age of Terror.


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