China Fights for a Freer Future

After just two months as the Communist Party of China’s General Secretary, Xi Jinping has already been challenged by a broad range of domestic and international conflicts, and his varied responses indicate a complicated but potentially bright future for Chinese politics. I suppose this is expected from a nation whose political identity seems to be in constant redefinition, simultaneously revolutionary and reactionary. And although the country has witnessed no real revolution, either political or cultural, for decades, its political and cultural evolution has been at the forefront of every Chinese debate the whole time.

When Deng Xiaoping steered away from Mao Zedong’s Soviet-esque Marxism in lieu of market socialism, he showed that China must continually question and reinterpret communism for the CPC to remain in power. So far, it seems to have worked remarkably, as China has jumped the ranks to the world’s biggest exporter and energy producer and expanded it middle class by hundreds of millions in little more than a decade. But pictures of Mao’s stern face still plaster public places all over the country, to the dissent of Chinese activists who question why the government still reveres the man whose “Great Leap Forward” caused 45 million Chinese to die of starvation. If instead we are meant to remember and revere Mao for his founding of the People’s Republic of China and his dream of communist equality, they argue, then the CPC needs to listen to its people, rather than drown them out with propaganda and one-party totalitarianism. The Party has groomed Mr. Xi for his position for years, but faced with a populous that is more hooked on democratic innovations (like Facebook, the Arab Spring, and The Avengers) than it’s ever been, he may be forced to make some choices that violate what his Party stands for.

Recently, millions of Chinese activists and journalists protested the government’s propaganda office, which, under the rule of Mr. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, had tightened its oversight and censorship of the liberal newspaper The Southern Weekly. The office had also forced The Beijing News, a partner of The Southern Weekly with a record of intense investigative journalism, to publish an editorial denouncing its partner paper. As activists protested for three days at headquarters of the media group that owns both papers (countered only by a dozen Party members sporting Mao’s portraits), writers from both publications wept, threatened to resign, and drank away their sorrows. Finally, propaganda officials under Xi responded in untraditional fashion: by returning freedoms to the papers, and (hopefully, we’ll see) by abdicating their right to review the papers. This loosening of control has galvanized journalists and free speech activists across China, and though Mr. Xi has vowed to stay true to China’s socialist roots, this small human rights victory could suggest more to come over the next decade of Xi’s rule.

A little further south, however, Vietnam shows no signs of similar progress. Though Vietnam and  China share a Communist Party rule, the two nations have become estranged from each other by the latter’s fervent defense of the South China Sea, an oil-rich territory of water over which Mr. Xi plans to continue China’s controversial claim. Indeed, the Vietnamese and Chinese governments have been exchanging blows over a recent scandal, where a Chinese fishing boat cut the cable on a Vietnamese oil rig. Mr. Xi has made his position on this long-standing conflict clear. Sadly, even if Xi manages to somewhat liberalize and democratize China during his term, this territorial claim may further compromise China’s credibility in the region. Unlike the political upheavals in Arab states, which were predicted to influence neighboring governments, China’s aggression and isolationism may contain any political and social progress within the nation’s borders. Vietnam’s government, which recently sentenced 14 liberal bloggers, writers, and activists to lengthy prison sentences, may refuse to take advice from its evolving neighbor.

Ai Weiwei, a prominent Chinese artist active in sculpture, architecture, film, and political and social criticism, who has protested CPC policies and been held without reason by the state for months at a time. Here, he and other activists perform a regional dance, sending a message to the government that he can’t be silenced. Credit:



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