No Exit in China
AP Photo/Andy Wong
No Exit in China
AP Photo/Andy Wong
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In the 18th century after a passing breeze caused him to lose his place in a book, a Chinese scholar named Xu Jun wrote this short poem: "The clear breeze is illiterate, so why does it insist on rummaging through the pages of a book?" Though this couplet was seemingly harmless, the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty (1645-1911) executed Xu in 1730 for seditious thought. The Qing, invaders from the Manchurian steppe whose dynastic name meant "clear" or "pure," were acutely sensitive to the insinuation that they were illiterate barbarians despite adopting the trappings of Chinese civilization. Countless other poets shared Xu's fate during the dynasty's infamous literary inquisitions. While this paranoia appears excessive, it was a reflection of a very real problem for the Manchus.

The Qing, like all other Chinese central governments, struggled to contain dissent across a continent-sized empire. This proved doubly difficult because a small number of ethnic Manchus ruled over a far larger population of resentful Han Chinese. Han rebellion, which often coalesced around the purported superiority of Han culture, was a constant threat, shaking the foundations of the empire from the mid-19th century. Eventually, Han-led revolution swept away the Qing - and the entire imperial Chinese system - in 1911, leading to the formation of the Republic of China. This, in turn, quickly split along factional lines into warlord cliques. Truly effective central rule did not return until the Communists seized power in 1949.

Paranoia appears to be on the upswing in China once again as President Xi Jinping attempts to force painful structural reforms past resentful provincial and local governments, the bitter medicine for years of distortions imposed by China's wave of economic stimulus. Outwardly, he seems well poised to do this. Observers often call him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. On the outside, it appears to be true. Xi is in the midst of an epochal housecleaning with his anti-corruption campaign, which has disrupted countless power networks and, in the process, created numerous enemies.

Since 2012, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party's top anti-graft agency, has investigated and punished hundreds of thousands of officials. The campaign is set to continue, with all arms of the government completed before the 19th Party Congress in 2017. By doing this, Xi has eliminated political rivals, and seemingly, the system of consensus-based politics that had prevailed in China since 1978 - a system intended to be a hold on the emergence of individualistic dictatorship and the policy ills that flowed from it. It is a system now seen by Xi as unsuitable for handling China's entangled economic problems, such as overcapacity in heavy industry and ballooning corporate debt. But China's ruling authorities are behaving as if they are anything but secure - since February, Chinese censors have responded harshly to seemingly innocent slips in the press. Beijing's harsh response suggests that political struggle is more intense in China than it has been in decades.

Reading Between the Lines on China's Paranoia

Ahead of the annual plenary sessions of China's National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), Xi embarked on a widely publicized tour of China's top three state media outlets. During the tour, the media was encouraged to swear unflinching loyalty to the party - effectively Xi himself, who had recently cast himself as the "core of the Party." The surname of the media, Xi demanded, must be "the Party." Within days, the CCDI launched an anti-corruption investigation targeting both the Central Propaganda Department and the government's top censorship agency. The message was clear - Xi was demanding even more obedience from the already heavily controlled state media.

Nonetheless, there were signs of resistance from within the media. A number of prominent editors resigned in protest. On the sidelines of the NPC and CPPCC, Caixin, a relatively independent financial news outlet, was censored when it published an interview in which a CPPCC delegate called for greater press freedom. Caixin followed with an article noting that its previous article had been censored.

Aside from the rare public shows of disobedience from the press, Beijing appears to be extraordinarily sensitive to many seemingly innocuous mistakes. In March, a paper owned by the Guangdong Communist Party published a front page with two headlines. One, covering Xi's media tour, read "Party and government-sponsored media are propaganda battlefronts and must be surnamed 'Party.'" Directly below it was a photo of the sea burial of a prominent politician with a headline reading "His soul returns to the sea." But, read vertically, the two headlines read "The soul of the media has died because it bears the Party's surname." In another instance, a Xinhua article caused a stir when a typo changed a reference to Xi Jinping being "China's Paramount Leader" (Zuigao Lingdao) to become "China's Last Leader" (Zuihou Lingdao).

The front page of the Southern Metropolis Daily. Together characters from the headline and photo caption appear to read "The soul of the media has died because it bears the Party's surname."