Censorship has gone too far, contends Zhou Ruijin, 76, in an essay published in China in January and on Phoenix TV’s ifeng.com early this month. “To be frank, some leaders in the party’s propaganda department were managing the press like how they would manage a train schedule, directly intervening in the approach and procedure of news reporting,” he wrote.
Zhou, a leading liberal writer in the 1990s, attacked today’s propaganda chiefs for taking down offending websites and deleting postings, calling these actions contrary to the concept that the Communist Party govern the country according to law. Moreover, he condemned “waves of campaigns, strict clampdowns, and public shaming,” the last a reference to the parading of people making Cultural Revolution-style confessions on television.
“In a phase of social transition, it is normal that there are different views and discussions in the field of ideology, that the public air their own opinions on deepening reforms,” wrote Zhou. “They can only be guided, but not repressed.”
History, unfortunately, shows the Chinese people can, in fact, be repressed. The brutal Qin Shihuang, China’s first emperor known for burning books and burying scholars, said his dynasty would last forever. “From the second generation to the ten thousandth, my line will not end,” he boasted. It ended three years after his death.
The Chinese people can remain quiet for decades—and sometimes centuries—but then they erupt. Zhou’s prescription to avoid eruptions is to relax controls, but Xi Jinping, China’s ruler, has gone far in the other direction, first demanding obedience and now, uniformity. He has promoted “ideological purification” and brought Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, back to the center of the country’s official discourse. In short, Xi promotes the policies that Zhou condemns.
Zhou’s critique is notable because he once served as deputy editor of People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s self-described mouthpiece, making him a leading figure in the state’s propaganda apparatus. Yet he recognizes that times have changed in China and that the 1950s-type information controls favored by Xi cannot succeed today.
As Xu Youyu, retired from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, notes, “No matter how hard the authorities want to suppress, they can’t just do what they want anymore because there is consensus in society on constitutional rule and the protection of free speech.”
The notion of a mass ruling organization, like the Communist Party, fulfilling its historical destiny has few adherents in China today. Although there are no reliable polls measuring political opinion in that country, it is nearly certain that by now most Chinese reject the one-party state as appropriate to their modernizing society. For now, party censorship, is tolerated, not supported and has few defenders outside the political elite.
The Chinese accept censorship only because they fear Xi Jinping’s coercion and repression. Zhou’s lone dissent is important because, at great personal risk, he is opening space that could broaden and embolden the national conversation.
Perhaps most important, Zhou shows us that the Chinese people can overcome fear. And in China, the loss of fear is the first step to progress.