Xi Jinping’s crackdown on free speech is being criticized—by advisers to China’s Communist Party

But is Xi listening?
But is Xi listening?
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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This article has been corrected.

China’s annual meetings of the National Peoples Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) are underway. Dubbed the “two sessions,” they’re usually staid, well-scripted affairs that generate little controversy, even though 5,000 officials, bureaucrats, and advisers are meeting to discuss China’s future.

But this year’s proceedings are off to an atypical start. An unusual number of CPPCC members, who serve as advisers to the party from industry and academia, are openly advocating broader freedom in China—and domestic media are even reporting their statements.

Their comments come as China is in the midst of a severe crackdown on free speech, online information, human rights, and media. Since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, outspoken citizens have been silenced, human rights lawyers jailed, restrictions on online and broadcast television increased, and journalists who report on politically sensitive issues face jail time.

That doesn’t appear to be stopping some Party advisers, though, or local media.

Jiang Hong, a professor at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, told news outlets he planned to speak about freedom of speech at a closed-door session in the meetings, after a March 3 interview he gave to well-respected business publication Caixin was scrubbed from websites. In the interview, he argued that the government had an obligation to ensure that the Chinese people could express themselves.

As for affairs within the Chinese Communist Party, I am an outsider. I have no right to criticize or make irresponsible remarks. But as a citizen, [my] freedom of expression must be protected.

The Cyberspace Administration of China demanded Caixin remove the article, arguing it contained “illegal content,” according to a report on Caixin’s English language site (which has also been removed). The remarks were also scrubbed it from Jiang’s personal WeChat account, where he had sent it out to his followers. He called the actions “completely unacceptable” in a subsequent interview reported by the Global Times.

The incident has drawn enough attention that a 2015 piece, titled “Jiang Hong: Only when we have democracy can we curb corruption,” is currently making the rounds on WeChat. In the piece, the author openly calls for democracy (link in Chinese)—something that’s grounds for punishment in China.

In order to curb corruption, we must carry forth reform of the political system. [In order] to contain power within the cages of regulation, we must completely eradicate the roots of corruption from the soil. This is what democracy is.

The piece remains accessible from Caixin’s website, where it was published originally.

Jiang isn’t the only person with ties to the government to make similar calls as the two meetings convene.

Zhu Zhengfu, deputy chairman of the All-China Lawyers Association, spoke at the CPPCC on Thursday, condemning China’s increased use of televised confessions before trails:

There are too many possibilities that may lead suspects to plead guilty against their will, or against the facts. Before a judgment by the court, we should stop society from treating them as criminals.

Wang Guoqing, the press spokesman for this year’s CPPCC, meanwhile, pledged to answer reporters’ questions, a rare event. “As long as it does not affect national security and the overall situation, why should we shrink from some questions?”

China Daily, the state-affiliated English newspaper, published an editorial lauding Zhu and Wang’s comments, and calling for more transparency, “The thornier the topics, the more candid the discourse needs to be,” China Daily wrote. China Discipline Inspection Daily, a newspaper tied to the top Party watchdog, “weighed in with an old saying that a thousand yes-men cannot compare with one person who criticizes frankly,” the state-backed tabloid Global Times reported.

Representatives from the media and entertainment industry are speaking out as well.

Zhang Guoli, an actor and producer, lamented the growing number of restrictions (paywall) that studios face when producing film and TV at another CPPCC panel.

From submitting an application to the final censorship, you have to negotiate with and get the nod from each relevant government department.

Bai Yansong, a popular CCTV anchor, appeared at a CPPCC meeting yesterday advocating for greater press freedoms. He argued that journalists require autonomy to report on subjects like the China’s pollution problem, which the government has promised to alleviate.

I speak for my colleagues in news when I say: When it comes to guiding public opinion, the media can greatly help efforts to save the environment. If you want green development you must give media the green light.

China’s media environment has grown more conservative since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012. Restrictions on online and broadcast television have increased, and journalists who report on politically sensitive issues have faced jail time.

The “two sessions” provide more room for political debate than there is in China most of the rest of the year, William Nee, who researches human rights in China for Amnesty International, told Quartz. But, “one gets the sense that these calls for greater protections for human rights–and the fact that they are covered in the mainland media at all–could be indicative of the profound displeasure that some journalists and legal reformers have over the worrying direction of the country,” as civil society, journalism, academia, and religion have all come under greater Party control.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece erroneously stated that Jiang’s piece calling for democracy was dated March 9, 2016. It was dated March 9, 2015.