Editorial: Signs of trouble to come for China's new leader

Protests over press freedom will test Xi Jinping's reformist image

Share
Related Topics

While the protests over press freedom in Guangzhou may not presage an imminent Chinese Spring, they are the first real challenge for the country's new leader, Xi Jinping. They are also a sign of rising pressures that the ruling Communist Party is struggling to contain.

The row began a week ago, when a New Year message to be published by Southern Weekend – a respected, liberal newspaper with a rare reputation for independence – was re-written by the regional censor. Out went the calls for "constitutional government" enshrining rights such as freedom of speech; in their place were inserted anodyne re-statements of Communist Party orthodoxy.

The move was certainly heavy-handed; but, in China's highly controlled media, it was far from unprecedented. Southern Weekend refused to take such treatment lying down, however. Its journalists issued public complaints, went on strike and even called for the resignation of the local propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen – sparking a storm of dissent on social media sites and protests several-hundred strong outside the newspaper's offices.

The dispute is fraught with difficulty for the new-look ruling regime. Not only are public wrangles with the censor vanishingly rare; this one is taking place in Guangdong, the province that has led China's three-decade economic transformation and which was visited by Mr Xi himself last month, in his carefully choreographed first official trip after taking over as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

Since his elevation to the top job in November, hopes have been high that Mr Xi might prove more of a moderniser than his stick-in-the-mud predecessor. Mr Xi's more relaxed speaking style is a breath of fresh air compared with Hu Jintao's incomprehensible sloganising. He has also explicitly targeted corruption, warning that graft will "doom the party and the state" if it is not checked. And his trip to Guangdong – a nod to Deng Xiaoping's 1992 tour of the region – adds to the sense of a new broom at last.

Now, though, with protesters calling for press freedom scuffling outside Southern Weekend's offices with leftists clutching pictures of Mao, Mr Xi's public image – and early popularity – are to be put to the test.

Thus far, the signs are mixed. True, the police response to the demonstrations appears to have been relatively light-touch. But the closure of a pro-reform website last Friday is far from encouraging. And state-run newspapers are predictably blaming known dissidents for the unrest and claiming that China is not ready for reform. Nor does Mr Xi have a wholly free hand. Even if his intentions are all that the optimists hope, efforts to shake up the status quo will meet with resistance from the hundreds of thousands who benefit from it. Progress, if there is any, will be slow.

For all that, there is little choice but to loosen visibly cracking state control. Or to see it break apart. The current row over press freedom is the most widespread protest since Tiananmen Square, nearly 25 years ago. It may not, of itself, start a revolution; but it is unmistakable evidence that the demands of the ever-expanding, internet-enabled middle class are growing more pressing. Nor can they be dodged. Amid the furore over Southern Weekend on the Sina Weibo social networking site, actress Yao Chen – whose microblog has a staggering 30 million readers – posted the newspaper's logo alongside a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Even if the Communist Party can quell the row over one printed editorial, Sina Weibo and its like cannot be controlled.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Inequality in Britain – a defence of the mansion tax

John Rentoul
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada