Last month, President Xi Jinping of China took a choreographed tour of the country’s largest media organizations, and, with the authoritarian voice of a general among soldiers, demanded absolute loyalty. In a move bearing uncanny resemblance to Maoist mass propaganda campaigns, President Xi clarified that the nation’s media should function solely as a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, asserting that “all the work by the Party’s media must reflect the Party’s will, safeguard the Party’s authority, and safeguard the Party’s unity. They must love the Party, protect the Party, and closely align themselves with the Party’s leadership, thought, politics, and action.”
Censorship and propaganda campaigns are not new to the People’s Republic, but Xi’s tightening grip on the media is a reversal of what many believed to be a trend toward liberalization of the media within the country, especially with the advent of the Internet. Towards the end of former President Hu Jintao’s term, social media websites such as Weibo seemed to be a realm of relative autonomy, where citizen journalists exposed holes in government cover-ups and users pushed the boundaries of political discourse. The historical barrier of censorship in China seemed to finally be changing direction — and yet, in an abrupt turn of events, free speech in China today is more limited than ever.
President Xi’s favorite slogans may reveal the underlying reason for this sudden strong-arming of the media. After taking power, Xi introduced the concept of the “Chinese Dream” as his guiding principle, prominently featuring prosperity as a central theme. His first speech as Communist Party General Secretary touted the economic progress the CCP has brought and will continue to bring to China, declaring that “we have united and led the people to advance and struggle tenaciously, transforming the impoverished and backward Old China into the New China that has become prosperous and strong gradually. The great revival of the Chinese nation has demonstrated unprecedented bright prospects.” Xi’s vision for the future of China is one of national rejuvenation through economic development, under the keen guidance of the CCP.
But in the past few months, it has become evident that China has lost its path to the Chinese dream. If nothing else, CCP leaders have in the past been praised for their ability to produce a remarkable level of economic growth for a relatively long period of time. China has achieved GDP growth averaging 10 percent a year, and over 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty just within the last 30 years. But Xi has seemingly lost his handle on the Chinese economy. The bubble first burst in the summer of last year, with 2015 marking the slowest year of economic growth for China in over 25 years. The CCP attempted to stop the bleeding by forcing large state-run companies to buy stocks and by restricting the sale of stocks, but to no avail. This January, the major Shanghai index tanked once again, forcing the Chinese government to devalue the yuan for the second time in the past year. At the meeting of the National People’s Congress early this year, Prime Minister Li was forced to adjust his target range for GDP growth to 6.5 – 7 percent. China’s markets are nowhere near as stable as they were two years ago, and despite Beijing’s fudging of the numbers, it’s obvious. The Chinese dream loses its magic when people no longer believe in it. And President Xi loses authority and legitimacy when the Chinese dream falls apart.
The legitimacy of the reigning Chinese Communist Party is rooted in its ability to produce economic growth. The rhetoric of the party as “the people’s choice” rings terribly hollow — the people may have participated in the revolution that brought it to power over 50 years ago, but the lack of a current system of representation discounts its public mandate as a valid source of legitimacy. Only the rapid industrialization, economic growth, and increase in standard of living across the board lends the government the people’s trust and grants it the right to rule. The ability of the leaders of the CCP to manage the economy created a new foundation of authority and legitimacy based on a promise of economic growth. Even authoritarian governments can be tolerable if life improves for everyone.
But when that promise starts to fall apart, and the economy takes a tumble, the legitimacy of the government is devastated. President Xi has to find some way to pick up the pieces, and glue them back together to form some believable picture of unity, trust, and hope. He has to reassure the Chinese citizenry that he has the economy under control, and drown out voices shouting otherwise. Even more dangerous than those voices, however, are voices that now question and attack the very authority of the CCP regime. Free political discourse becomes especially perilous at a time of economic instability, because it can reveal the very thin string from which the legitimacy of the Chinese government hangs. Censorship thus becomes necessary to protect President Xi’s and the entire Chinese government’s authority.
And so, Xi’s bullying of the media is not so strange after all. These past few months of Xi’s reign have seen the most severe crackdown on free speech in China in many years. This past month, a former deputy party chief was expelled for improper speech, a Chinese columnist mysteriously disappeared after publishing literature critical of Xi’s regime, articles from one of China’s most respected financial periodicals were forcibly removed, and the social media account of Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon, was shut down. Even book publishers from Hong Kong appear to have been abducted by the Party. And this past year, China topped the list for the greatest number of journalists imprisoned in the world, hitting a record of 49, a quarter of all journalists behind bars worldwide. President Xi’s words, spoken to the heads of the nation’s media organizations, merely serve to rubber stamp his consolidation of power over the media.
Economic crises are inevitable, and it is only a matter of time before a long period of growth peters out, but these shocks are much more hazardous for governments whose legitimacy lies on such promises. When the CCP fails to meet the tests it has set up for itself, it must rely on authoritarian measures such as propaganda and censorship to retain its hold on power. Despite all of China’s economic advancement, its political situation will be stuck in this cycle of oppression until the CCP reworks the foundation of its legitimacy.