'Spreading rumors' online in China punishable by 7 years in prison...

This article is guilty of spreading panic and disorder

More general signs of a crackdown on expression
Dec 5th 2015 | BEIJING |

Xi Jinping nixes the negativity

IN THE middle of August Zhao Shaolin, a retired Communist Party boss of Jiangsu province in eastern China, was carted away by the country’s anti-corruption commission. Nothing unusual there. Dozens of local party bosses have fallen foul of a national anti-bribery campaign. What was surprising were the charges levelled against him. These usually stress the vast wealth the accused is said to have squirrelled away by his or her nefarious activities. Mr Zhao’s crime, according to Beijing News, a party newspaper, was to flout party discipline by criticising government policies. Some people, Xie Chuntao of the Central Party School sniffed, think “they are cleverer than the Party, which cannot be allowed.”

Mr Zhao was not the only one. In mid-October the anti-corruption commission arrested two serving provincial party chiefs, in Hebei near Beijing and Guangxi in the south. Their list of crimes also included criticising the party. On October 12th the Politburo approved a new edition of the party’s rules. It was, Xinhua, the state news agency, said, “the most complete and stringent code of conduct” in the history of the Communist Party. It bans party members from making “negative comments” or “irresponsible remarks” about policy. Members may debate issues—but only if they say nice things.

This stress on ideological conformity marks a return to older habits. In September 2013 Xi Jinping, China’s president, had called criticism and self-criticism “a powerful weapon…The more you use it, the more you improve the ability of leaders to discover and solve their problems.” Yet over the past few months, and not for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China, a more open debate has given way to tighter restrictions on expression, which has never been wholly free.

In his key speech last year on the arts, Mr Xi not only called for “positive energy” in the arts. He also slammed modern architecture and the emulation of western art. The timing of the speech made liberals uncomfortable. It was to celebrate the anniversary of a speech by Mao Zedong which paved the way for a spasm of violence called the Rectification Campaign in which 10,000 people died. Criticism of that monster Mao himself has again become unacceptable. After a popular television anchorman, Bi Fujian, was unwittingly filmed singing a parody of a Peking opera mocking the Great Helmsman, he was fired.

The media are feeling the chill. Last month Zhao Xinwei, the editor of Xinjiang Daily, was sacked, apparently for expressing worries about an anti-terrorist crackdown in the Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang in China’s far west. In August Wang Xiaolu of Caijing, a financial magazine, was paraded on state television and confessed to spreading “panic and disorder” during the summer’s stockmarket crash. His crime was to report that the China Securities Regulatory Commission was looking for ways to stop propping up the market.

At the same time, three of China’s last remaining liberal publications, Southern Weekend, Southern Metropolis and Southern Daily, collectively known as the Southern series, got a visit from the censors. A reporter who works there told the Committee to Protect Journalists, a lobby group in America, that the subsequent fawning coverage of a big military parade on China’s national day “killed the last bit of expectation and good impression that the public has for the Southern series.” Getting the message, 50 media organisations signed a “self-disciplinary pact” in September, promising not to “publish or spread opinions that damage the look of the party and our country.”

Summing up the expanding range of restrictions earlier this year, Freedom House, an American non-governmental organisation, said that out of 17 frequent objects of censorship—such as grassroots activists, professors and Tibetans—11 have faced more intense pressure under Mr Xi. Over 100 lawyers were rounded up in the summer. A group of feminists were arrested (then bailed) on charges of “provoking trouble”. In fact, they were drawing attention to sexual harassment on public transport. Academics are being told to watch their step.

Since he came to power in 2012, Mr Xi has repeatedly rejected insidious western ideas such as a free press and human rights. At the same time, however, he has balanced that tradition of command and control by occasionally talking about the importance of China’s constitution, a more liberal document. Three things are happening now to cause him to emphasise the control side of things.

First, his self-appointed task to clean up a rotten Communist Party is becoming ever more daunting. The anti-corruption campaign has netted thousands of high-ranking officials, and there is little sign that it is faltering. (As well as the first arrests of serving provincial bosses, this year has seen an expansion of the campaign to go after the bosses of state-owned enterprises.) Mr Xi may have concluded that restricting the opinions of party members is necessary in order to push his campaign forward.

Second, the government is trying to beef up controls over social media, which exploded just as Mr Xi was coming to power. New guidelines from the State Internet Information Office, issued in August, impose restrictions on China’s so-called microblogs (blogs published, for example, on WeChat, an instant-messaging service). Revisions to the criminal code which came into force in November make “spreading rumours” online punishable by up to seven years in prison—and the law does not specify what counts as a rumour. And a draft cyber-security law would require internet companies to restrict online anonymity and report ill-defined “security incidents” to the government.

Thirdly, it seems likely that a slowdown in the economy is reviving fears that labour or other forms of unrest could threaten the party’s grip on power. It claims legitimacy from the fact that living standards have risen fast for many years; as those standards rise more slowly, ordinary people may start to complain about their rulers. Party leaders feel that sort of thing should be pre-emptively squashed.

The Chinese president has called slower economic growth “the new normal”. Tighter controls on expression are becoming a new normal, too.


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