The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Xi Jinping Faces First Real Test on Freedom of Speech

State censorship of one of China’s most liberal newspapers has sparked escalating protests over the past few days in the southern province of Guangdong. An editorial written late last week in the Southern Weekly urging China’s new leaders to pursue political reforms was replaced by the newspaper’s censor with a piece lauding the ruling party’s achievements. Now hundreds of people, most of them youths, have taken to the streets outside the newspaper’s headquarters protesting this latest clampdown on Chinese freedom of speech. Reuters has the story:

The standoff at the Southern Weekly, long seen as a beacon of independent and in-depth reporting in China’s stilted, highly controlled media landscape, escalated into a national social media issue and has triggered demands for the new leadership to enshrine media freedom.

Crowds of people congregated for a second day outside the liberal Southern Weekly that has become embroiled in a highly symbolic open revolt against press control in Guangdong, China’s most prosperous and liberal province, but many journalists were reluctant to call it a full-blown strike.

Guangdong was the birthplace of Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 economic reforms, reforms that transformed this backwater region into China’s economic powerhouse. Back then, Deng used Guangdong as China’s guinea pig to try out a market-oriented economy.

Fast forward to today when Guangdong, China’s most prosperous and liberal province, once again poses a challenging question about reform for Beijing. The Wall Street Journal has more:

The outburst has been fueled in part by expectations of change under new Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, who has stirred up hopes since taking office in November with optimistic comments about the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

[Xi] has adopted an informal style and dispensed with wooden Communist Party rhetoric, an approach that some see as a signal that he plans to make his administration more open and responsive to people’s concerns.

Disgruntled liberal journalists and free speech activists are probably not the leadership’s biggest worry. China’s leadership knows that its population is simultaneously its greatest strength and one of its biggest problems. The economic miracle was built largely on the backs of armies of cheap labor, but as the economy has boomed, these same workers have become more demanding, pushing for higher wages, less corruption and a (slightly) more open political system.

The trouble for Beijing is that while opening the press and the media to a more open discussion might soothe some intellectuals, an unpredictable press could stir mass public opinion in troublesome ways. Stories about the lifestyles of senior officials, for example, or about crooked business deals involving party officials would not go down well among the overworked, underpaid laborers on whom the whole system ultimately depends.

So far, China’s new leadership seems to be sending the message that, while there will be reforms and efforts to tackle corruption, they will be carefully controlled and directed from the top rather than coming as a result of accountability to a muckraking, freewheeling press and public.

Journalists, bloggers, and media magnates across China will no doubt carefully watch what happens to their fellow journalists at Southern Weekly. The rest of us should pay attention as well; the stakes in Guangdong are huge.

Published on January 8, 2013 10:25 pm