China's dictatorship facing press censorship crisis

Thomas Lifson
The autocrats of China, having just installed a new generation of leadership led by Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, is facing a burgeoning crisis over press censorship. This is emblematic of a wider crisis of legitimacy, as the dictatorship of the proletariat has morphed into the dictatorship of the rich and corrupt families who exploit the proletariat to fatten themselves, privilege their children, and grab all they can, while keeping criticism as muted as possible.

Josh Chin and Brian Spegle of the Wall Street Journal describe the immediate crisis:

On Monday, several hundred protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, to vent their anger at the reworking of a New Year's editorial that originally called for greater legal rights but ended up as a celebration of the government's achievements.

"Abandon press censorship. Chinese people want freedom!" read a handwritten placard attached to a bouquet of flowers left in front of the main gates of the building.

Demonstrators laid bunches of chrysanthemums, a flower associated with funerals, outside the newspaper's offices, in mock mourning for the demise of the newspaper's hard-hitting style, photographs posted on Sina Corp.'s Weibo microblogging service showed.

Demonstrations and even riots are nothing new in China, of course. But most of the tens of thousands of annual instances of civil unrest go unreported domestically and globally. The current demonstrations are different, because they are anchored in the Chinese media itself - both a prominent regional newspaper, and most importantly, the burgeoning internet. Karthrin Hille of the Financial Times explains:

The popularity of the Twitter-like Weibo microblog as a force in public debate has magnified the impact of the protest, triggering support for the newspaper not just from intellectuals but among the wider public. One popular Chinese actress on Monday quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the late Soviet dissident, to her 30m microblog followers.

If China's leadership stays true to their historical record, they will clamp down, perhaps even closing the newspaper. They may also escalate the tensions with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited rocks claimed by both countries, but carrying fishing rights and potential seabed mineral exploitation opportunities, using patriotism and anti-Japanese sentiment to solidify domestic support. However, Japan's newly-installed government of PM Shinzo Abe is strengthening its own defense policies and even threatening to revise its postwar constitution which forbids war-making.

Underlying the censorship crisis in China is the inherent tension between a dictatorship, which depends on control of information, and the needs of a high tech market economy, which requires (and develops) a free flow of information. The implied consent of the governed in China depends on people's lives getting materially better thanks to economic growth. But that growth depends on continued access to information, especially via the internet. If the growth falters, unrest will mushroom.

China's leadership well understands that its own communist dynasty could fall, just as  previous dynasties over the five thousand years of Chinese recorded history have fallen, when it appears to have lsot the mandate of heaven, and things are getting worse for ordinary people. For the first time in history, China boasts a middle class, heavily concentrated in the coastal cities which produce the wealth of a modern economy. This middle class, now able to learn about and even travel to other countries, is not a docile group. Keeping them happy enough to continue the economic progress of the country, while avoiding giving them enough information to realize how corrupt their leaders really are, is nop easy matter.

Tom Friedman of the New York Times frequently compares China's autocracy favorably to the messy and slow democracy of the United States. Pwerhaps Mr. Friedman would like to address his journalism colleagues in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) on the virutes of politicians rewriting the editorial content of newspapers.

The autocrats of China, having just installed a new generation of leadership led by Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, is facing a burgeoning crisis over press censorship. This is emblematic of a wider crisis of legitimacy, as the dictatorship of the proletariat has morphed into the dictatorship of the rich and corrupt families who exploit the proletariat to fatten themselves, privilege their children, and grab all they can, while keeping criticism as muted as possible.

Josh Chin and Brian Spegle of the Wall Street Journal describe the immediate crisis:

On Monday, several hundred protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, to vent their anger at the reworking of a New Year's editorial that originally called for greater legal rights but ended up as a celebration of the government's achievements.

"Abandon press censorship. Chinese people want freedom!" read a handwritten placard attached to a bouquet of flowers left in front of the main gates of the building.

Demonstrators laid bunches of chrysanthemums, a flower associated with funerals, outside the newspaper's offices, in mock mourning for the demise of the newspaper's hard-hitting style, photographs posted on Sina Corp.'s Weibo microblogging service showed.

Demonstrations and even riots are nothing new in China, of course. But most of the tens of thousands of annual instances of civil unrest go unreported domestically and globally. The current demonstrations are different, because they are anchored in the Chinese media itself - both a prominent regional newspaper, and most importantly, the burgeoning internet. Karthrin Hille of the Financial Times explains:

The popularity of the Twitter-like Weibo microblog as a force in public debate has magnified the impact of the protest, triggering support for the newspaper not just from intellectuals but among the wider public. One popular Chinese actress on Monday quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the late Soviet dissident, to her 30m microblog followers.

If China's leadership stays true to their historical record, they will clamp down, perhaps even closing the newspaper. They may also escalate the tensions with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited rocks claimed by both countries, but carrying fishing rights and potential seabed mineral exploitation opportunities, using patriotism and anti-Japanese sentiment to solidify domestic support. However, Japan's newly-installed government of PM Shinzo Abe is strengthening its own defense policies and even threatening to revise its postwar constitution which forbids war-making.

Underlying the censorship crisis in China is the inherent tension between a dictatorship, which depends on control of information, and the needs of a high tech market economy, which requires (and develops) a free flow of information. The implied consent of the governed in China depends on people's lives getting materially better thanks to economic growth. But that growth depends on continued access to information, especially via the internet. If the growth falters, unrest will mushroom.

China's leadership well understands that its own communist dynasty could fall, just as  previous dynasties over the five thousand years of Chinese recorded history have fallen, when it appears to have lsot the mandate of heaven, and things are getting worse for ordinary people. For the first time in history, China boasts a middle class, heavily concentrated in the coastal cities which produce the wealth of a modern economy. This middle class, now able to learn about and even travel to other countries, is not a docile group. Keeping them happy enough to continue the economic progress of the country, while avoiding giving them enough information to realize how corrupt their leaders really are, is nop easy matter.

Tom Friedman of the New York Times frequently compares China's autocracy favorably to the messy and slow democracy of the United States. Pwerhaps Mr. Friedman would like to address his journalism colleagues in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) on the virutes of politicians rewriting the editorial content of newspapers.