China’s official media and social media platforms rarely see eye to eye but over the past month or so, they have operated as if they are in different realms. The contrast is striking and intriguing.
In state media, news about President Xi Jinping, particularly his 11-day trip to Middle Eastern and African countries last month, has dominated the front pages and portrayed Xi as a global leader. In the case of People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi has monopolised entire front pages for several days in a row.
On social media and blogs, however, anger and discontent have brewed and spread as many enterprising citizens raced against fast-fingered government censors to circulate comments and articles blasting the government’s clumsy handling of a vaccine crisis and express rising concerns about a variety of issues: the handling of the trade war with the United States and its negative impact on the Chinese economy; the over-the-top propaganda drive on China’s economic and scientific achievements and Xi’s personality cult; about China giving billions of US dollars to poor African countries at the expense of its domestic needs; about the falling currency and stock markets … the list goes on.
Over the past few days, some overseas media have caught on, starting to highlight widespread disgruntlement as telltale signs of a blowback against Xi’s strongman style of politics. One even described this as Xi’s summer of discontent.
Is China’s political situation deteriorating? There is little doubt that the discontent is real and widespread, but fears about Xi’s grip on power and China’s political stability are overblown.
Chinese officials may have been dismayed at the predominantly negative coverage in the overseas media but the truth is they are mostly to blame for the mess.
The kind of blowback we are witnessing has been brewing since October when, having secured a stronger mandate at the party’s 19th congress, Xi declared that China had entered a new era and that it had never been so close to the centre of the world stage. It gathered steam in March, when China’s rubber-stamp parliament approved constitutional amendments to abolish the term limits on the presidency, enabling Xi to rule as long as he likes.
The abolition of the presidential term limit was symbolic – as the real power rests with the party’s General Secretary and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission. Xi already holds both positions and neither of them have term limits.
Even so, the change has elicited great unease at home and abroad, about China’s direction and Xi’s personal ambitions, prompting some Western countries to take measures to push back against Chinese influences and investments. The feelings are particularly strong in China’s intellectual circles given their ghastly experiences in the Cultural Revolution engineered by Mao Zedong, to whom Xi is often compared.
Chinese officials have done little to explain the sudden constitutional change and soothe concerns. Instead, they have embarked on another round of praising Xi and propagating Xi Jinping Thought on almost every issue – from politics to diplomacy, education to traditional Chinese medicine. In many places, portraits of Xi have been put up.
At the same time, the government censors work around the clock to erase negative comments on social media platforms and blogs, aiming to project an impression that Xi has the total support of the country.
Let’s not kid ourselves. In this age of the internet, emails, and social media, it is mission impossible in a country with a population of 1.3 billion people. The truth is that the disgruntlement on social media has never ceased; what we are witnessing is nothing new. What is new is that the media have started to write about it.
The overreach of the censors had even led to this ridiculous decision to ban the release of Disney’s new Winnie the Pooh film – reportedly because some social media users had compared Xi to the fictional bear.
The overriding need to strengthen Xi’s authority at home has seen China’s massive propaganda apparatus go into overdrive, resulting in over-the-top documentary films like Amazing China, which highlighted the country’s economic and technological achievements. Earlier this year, some state companies and government-affiliated organisations required their employees to watch the film.
In fact, many of the feats of engineering that appear in this documentary and others like it – such as China’s high-speed trains and first airliner, the C919 – would not have been possible without the aid of foreign technical know-how.
Instead of billing those achievements as prime examples of how China has benefited from integrating with and opening up to the outside world, such documentaries mainly highlight its domestic input.
Such propaganda may boost patriotism and national pride but it also portrays an idyllic utopian world – one that is increasingly out of touch with reality.
One running joke has it that Chinese people long to be in that world, portrayed in China Central Television prime news every day, where officials work tirelessly to cater to every need of the people and where pollution is gone, the economy is strong, jobs are plenty and people need not worry about education or food and drug safety.
Then came the authorities’ clumsy handling of last month’s faulty vaccine scandal, which was allowed to escalate into a crisis that prompted a nationwide uproar among parents before officials intervened decisively.
The excessive propaganda, including the Made in China 2025 programme that aims to bolster the country’s hi-tech industries, has provoked fears in the West, particularly in the United States, which in turn has hardened its resolve in its escalating trade war with China.
The worries about the impact of the trade war on the already slowing economy have triggered a slide in China’s stock markets and the yuan.
In attempts to beat the US to the high road in the war of words, Chinese propaganda officials have pushed for an odd narrative that the trade war is bad for American businesses and prevented domestic media from writing about the negative impact on the Chinese businesses and consumers. This has given rise to a joke that the Chinese government cares more about the American economy and businesses.
To the credit of the authorities, since June the propaganda has been taken down a few notches. State media has been ordered not to discuss the Made in China 2025 initiative or documentaries like Amazing China. China’s state media has since also refrained from using provocative and warlike language when attacking the US for pushing the trade war.
The decisions should have come earlier but are still very sensible. In a way, they reflected more flexibility from Xi, known for his strong leadership. But they have triggered another round of speculation on whether Xi faces challenges from within the party, particularly the party elders.
According to sources briefed about those decisions, Xi himself made them after receiving detailed briefings from his trusted aides. They suggested Xi had kept the party elders informed of the latest developments and had their support.
Another thread of speculation is that China’s leaders were badly advised and ill-prepared for US President Donald Trump’s unconventional leadership and his pursuit of a trade war against China and its impact on the Chinese economy.
Some official reports have indicated Chinese leaders are prepared for things to get worse. The Chinese government has recently indicated that it would again resort to the old recipe of boosting infrastructure spending to prevent the economy from slowing too much.
One intriguing official report, published on July 31, said Xi had met leading members of the smaller parties on July 16 to brief them on the current economic situation.
According to Xinhua, Xi urged all related parties to “understand the current economic situation correctly, stay confident and resolved, and build a broader consensus”.
Xinhua also quoted Xi as stressing the importance of “correctly understanding current topical issues” and “strengthening communications and guidance with the public so as to make them objectively understand the current situation”.
In a way, he indirectly acknowledged the widespread concerns about the economy.
One more thread of speculation has stemmed from the publication of essays by a few brave intellectuals who criticised some of the controversial decisions, including the abolition of term limits on the presidency. The most notable one that made the rounds over the internet and social media platforms over the past few weeks was reportedly penned by Xu Zhangrun, a law professor from Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater. In it, Xu expressed serious worries about China going backwards. It remains unclear if anything has happened to Xu since the publication, although he said in the essay he was prepared to face any consequences.
Let’s hope nothing will happen to him. After all, as an upright intellectual, he merely voiced his personal opinions and worries about the country’s future direction.
To end on a slightly positive note, the latest reports have suggested that Google is considering returning to China eight years after its exit from the country. Let’s hope this will happen, not the least because the domestic research engine Baidu is no match for Google. Allowing Google to return, even as a filtered search engine, would send a positive message about China’s intention to further open up. ■
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper