For the second time in just over six months, China’s president, Xi Jinping, is gracing the cover of The Economist, although Beijing appears unimpressed and unamused.
Xi is dressed in the imperial robe of Qianlong, one of the most influential and successful emperors in Chinese history, and Beijing’s response was as swift as it was predictable. All related online pictures and links to the latest issue of the British newspaper have been heavily censored, just hours after the publication of the Xi cover.
This is a key date in modern Chinese history, and The Economist is quick to explain to those unversed in the history of the Middle Kingdom: “In 1793 a British envoy, Lord Macartney, arrived at the court of the Chinese emperor, hoping to open an embassy. He brought with him a selection of gifts from his newly industrialising nation.”
“The Qianlong emperor, whose country then accounted for about a third of global GDP, swatted him away,” The Economist recounts, noting that the emperor welcomed Britain’s “sincere humility and obedience” but China did not have “the slightest need for your country’s manufactures”.
Despite the emperor’s dismissive tone 220 years ago, the British were not so easily deterred and Lord Macartney’s visit ultimately signaled the end of the Qing dynasty, and helped to change the course of China -- and possibly the world.
Now, when President Xi describes his vision for the future of China as a “Chinese dream” of which all Chinese should be proud, The Economist may feel Xi has something similar in mind to Qianlong Emperor’s.
“Mr. Xi’s emphasis on national greatness has made party leaders heirs to the dynasts of the 18th century, when Qing emperors demanded that Western envoys kowtow (Macartney refused),” The Economist said.
Despite heavy online censorship -- particularly on China’s most popular Twitter-like real-time microblog service, Sina Weibo -- some Chinese online users were still able to glimpse The Economist’s new cover about Xi before Internet censors swooped to delete all relevant photos.
As a result, they were swiftly redistributed online hundreds or even thousands of times for about half an hour on Friday morning. Reactions from Chinese netizens were mostly upbeat.
“I like this picture. I like Xi Jinping. As a Chinese, I am proud to have a leader like him,” commented one Weibo user.
Other netizens commented that China has Xi as Russia has Vladimir Putin, whom some Western media portray as an empire builder and wannabe Tsar.
The Economist Group has an official Weibo account, but did not post its new cover story there, and the account appeared to be operating normally on Friday.
Beijing has deleted several foreign media Weibo accounts. For example, the New York Times’ Chinese Weibo account was expunged after the US newspaper published articles about former Premier Wen Jiabao's family wealth, angering the Chinese government, which said they were “false and negative”.
The Economist, just like all other foreign newspapers and magazines, cannot be sold publicly in the street in mainland China. While it may be available at some top-end hotels and embassies and consulates, those who wish to subscribe to the weekly newspaper must apply for permission to a state agency. Officials there sometimes tear out pages that contain politically "sensitive" content before allowing it to reach subscribers.
The last time Xi graced The Economist’s cover was October 27 last year, when he was set to be officially named as the new leader. Its headline was “The man who must change China” and Xi was dressed in black suit, and was portrayed sitting in an armchair with fault lines around him.
A lot has changed since Lord Macartney’s fateful visit more than 200 years ago. China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s No.2 economy, just behind the United States. Whether China’s economic surge can continue, probably hinges on how Xi improves or reforms the Communist Party, which has ruled the “New China” since 1949.
George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Like the Mr. Shangkong column? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong