Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Nobel Aftershocks

Other people have said that the effects of Mr. Liu winning the Prize are likely going to build over time, and I'm inclined to agree. He probably won't be released in the upcoming weeks, no matter how many people and organizations call for it. But in emboldening other activists and in generally reshaping the Overton Window inside China, this award could end up being very important. The China Media Project has already gotten wind of one thing: a group of 23 "Party Elders" including "Mao Zedong’s former secretary Li Rui and former People’s Daily editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei" have written an open letter to the National People's Congress calling for a number of changes, including:

1. Abolish sponsoring institutions of [Chinese] media [NOTE: This is the controlling organization that exercises Party control over the media], allowing publishing institutions to independently operate; Truly implement a system in which directors and editors in chief are responsible for their publication units.

2. Respect journalists, and make them strong (尊重记者,树立记者). Journalists should be the “uncrowned kings.” The reporting of mass incidents and exposing of official corruption are noble missions on behalf of the people, and this work should be protected and supported. Immediately put a stop to the unconstitutional behavior of various local governments and police in arresting journalists.

4. The internet is an important discussion platform for information in our society and the voice of citizens’ views. Aside from information that truly concerns our national secrets and speech that violates a citizen’s right to privacy, internet regulatory bodies must not arbitrarily delete online posts and online comments. Online spies must be abolished, the “Fifty-cent Party” must be abolished, and restrictions on “tunneling/[anti-censorship]” technologies must be abolished.

5. There are no more taboos concerning our Party’s history. Chinese citizens have a right to know the errors of the ruling party.

Given that the NPC functions as a rubber-stamp institution for the Communist Party, this letter was likely intended to further stir up debate and to put their names on record for supporting reform, rather than an attempt to get the NPC to do something itself.

Meanwhile, major mainland newspaper Guangming Daily has written up a strongly supportive editorial calling Wen Jiabao a hero for his pro-reform stance. As EastSouthWestNorth notes before its translation of the piece, this same paper lambasted him just two weeks ago. This time, however:

Premier Wen Jiabao is a great hero for the Chinese people. He is a true man of today. For more than a month during this grim autumn, Wen Jiabao has shown unmatched courage to bring up the issue of political reform. On September 23, he was interviewed on CNN and he brought out these "earth-shaking" statements: "The desire and need of the people for democracy and freedom are unstoppable" and "No party, organization or persons have the privilege to bypass the constitution and the law. We must all act in accordance with the constitution. I believe that this is an important characteristic in contemporary political systems. Let me summarize my political ideas in four sentences: let the people live happily with dignity; let the people feel safe and assured; let society be filled with justice; let people be confident about the future." "Although there are various kinds of ideas in society and although there exists various kinds of obstacles, I will firmly and immovably carry out my ideas to the best of my ability. I will increase the pace of political reform. I want to use two phrases to express my determination: 'Wind and rain will be no obstacle, no rest until I die'." "The people and the power of the people will determine the future and the history of the nation. The hope and will of the people will not stop. Those who abide by it will flourish, those who oppose it will perish!"


A small number of people do not understand high-level politics. They accuse the virtually isolated Premier of being "all show and no action." They don't understand that Wen Jiabao is just one person out of nine (note: in the Politburo). One vote out of nine votes is insignificant. His decisions are only made in the economic realm. He cannot eliminate the system of labor reform or release some prisoner or the other. Besides, when politicians talk, they are already doing things. A call to social mobilization is more powerful and valuable than doing one or two specific things.


Perhaps Wen Jiabao is the least powerful government official in China and many people are happy to see him being so beleaguered. But the majority of the Chinese people will support the people's hero -- Premier Wen!

The reality of the Chinese government is that its monolithic facade conceals a number of divisions. Guangming Daily writes this column in support of Wen's CNN interview, while at the same time the censorship offices continue to delete any posts referring to it. These ripples on the surface are indicative of ongoing debates within the Party, which has struggled to maintain a unified public front since Tiananmen. In reality, different factions have been fighting over different policies for some time, and I think it's safe to say that these fights have been escalating recently. Hopefully the right people will come out on top for a change.


  1. Wow! Those are some impressively reformist statements - almost more America-style idealistic than America these days. I've always thought that the Internet renders censorship obsolete as a method of societal control, but wouldn't necessarily expect [any major portion of] the Chinese government to agree. If they do even go ahead, what sort of timeframe do you think is possible for reforms of this level?

  2. Timeframe- Hard to say, and I'd be extremely suspicious of anyone who gives a specific guess. There are a few upcoming dates that are probably playing some role in the timing, though- the 5th Plenary Session of the 17th CPC Central Committee is meeting tomorrow or the next day, and it's a good bet that some statements have been made public in an attempt to influence the outcome of that. it's possible that they'll issue some sort of statement on political reform, but that might not end up happening and even if it does, I wouldn't expect much in the way of detailed policy to emerge.

    More generally, though, the 2012 politburo shakeup is going to see a massive change of the top level of chinese leadership, and different groups are definitely jockeying to get more of their people into the 9 person council and other higher organs.

    A few people have said that based on the best guesses they have now, the most likely compositions of the 2012 politburo probably won't go for drastic changes, but will instead follow the momentum they find upon taking office. Thus reformists are trying to get that ball rolling before they leave office, while their opponents on the authoritarian side want to hold the line where it is now- motivated both by their own desire for power and also a fear that political reform will lead china to a USSR-style meltdown.

    Internet and social control- China makes the following assumptions: Beijing controls the media, education, and civil society, such as there is. The internet is on some level uncontrollable, but it can be managed by making it extremely difficult to find information, and extremely dangerous to propagate it yourself. So information is still there, but you have to do some serious digging to get to it. And if you do find it, you can't really spread it very far without popping up on their radar and getting 'taken out for tea,' as chinese bloggers euphemistically call the visits paid to them by police.

    this doesn't seal up all the cracks, but it doesn't have to- it just has to contain it to the group of people who were going to find out anyway. as long as they arent able to use the internet as a soapbox with which to appeal to the masses, that's fine. it isn't mean to stop everything, it's just meant to dim the volume to a point where beijing-controlled discourse is far far louder.

    the problem is that the cost of doing this is growing every year. the 'internal control' budget has been skyrocketing- policing all the internet and all the campuses and all the unrest and all of tibetan and uyghur china adds up. its one of the problems that is going to grow untenable, and will eventually force beijings hand. whether the people who recognize this will be able to gain power and issue some course corrections is pretty much the mystery of the day.