The new sessions of China’s parliament, which kicked off last Sunday, are widely regarded as the start of a new era of administration led by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, but the biggest challenge facing global observers is anticipating in what direction China is moving.
One thing was clear in the first week of meetings, according to mainland media insiders: press censorship is not going to ease.
On the contrary, some veteran journalists said the restrictions imposed on them before this year's parliamentary sessions were the most severe they had experienced.
“They [the propaganda departments] used only to tell us not to do something when there was news they considered sensitive; this year, they asked what we wanted to do then killed our story ideas in advance,” said a Beijing-based journalist who asked not to be named.
Some managers of mainland news portals told the South China Morning Post that they would have to follow strict rules during the sessions.
Before the opening ceremony of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which are also called “lianghui” in China, several mainland journalists expressed their concerns to the Post, and what has happened since then proved their point.
On Sina Weibo, the most popular Chinese Twitter-style site, mainland netizens said the level of censorship was extreme.
If the combined surnames of the top leaders appear as a term, “Huwen” referring to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao and “Xili” referring to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, the posts are blocked. (Amusingly, the terms “Wenhu” and “Lixi” survive the censorship system.)
A Beijing-based newspaper editor complained on Twitter about her own experience on Tuesday. “I added the smiley-face logo when reposting a lyric by Jay Chou, and my post was deleted.” It turned out that the lyric, about a eunuch bowing when stepping down from the stage, was probably regarded as a satire on Wen, who bowed three times after delivering his last working report on Tuesday morning.
The censors even banned topical stories that had nothing to do with lianghui and the state leaders.
A two-month-old baby was choked to death by a car thief in Changchun, Jilin province, on Monday (March 4). After the thief turned himself in the next day, millions of netizens expressed outrage online, blaming not only the cold-blooded murderer but also China’s culture and education systems for shaping the attitude of the car thief.
Meanwhile, propaganda authorities asked media outlets not to publish follow-up stories on the tragedy.
The tough censorship restrictions imposed in the first week of lianghui have undermined the high expectations that many mainland journalists and netizens had since Xi Jinping became party secretary in November.
For about two months, dozens of corrupt officials, some high-ranking, were exposed by the public online, which triggered speculation that Xi might use online tools to help tackle worsening corruption in the party.
Now, the best mainland journalists can hope for in terms of press freedom after lianghui is that Beijing’s censorship returns to its pre-lianghui level.