Silence, please

Why even China’s prime minister is being censored

Silence, please

Even the prime minister is censored

In 1969, a rock festival broke new ground and became the inspiration for a generation. It was, of course, called Woodstock and around half a million people attended. Its political messages included opposition to the US government’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. Many music festivals have followed in its wake, and like Woodstock they have often championed a political agenda.

It’s no coincidence, but you probably haven’t heard of any Chinese music festivals. With good reason. Official mistrust of public gatherings seems to be the main issue and that has made it tortuously tough for Chinese music promoters to get permission to host concert events. The authorities don’t want to give out permits “because they don’t want to get into trouble if anything happens,” one organiser complained to Southern Weekend recently. Large crowds – the government suspects – might protest.

What chance for festival entrepreneurs when even the Chinese premier has problems with the censors? Wen Jiabao has made several statements recently that seemed to call for more debate on political reform. But his views failed to make it into domestic media. “Wen’s comments on political reform being censored at least tell us one thing: in front of the big wall, everyone is equal,” mocks prominent Beijing University internet researcher Hu Yong.

Of course, this comes at a time in which the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo has angered the Beijing leadership.

Liu, who is serving an 11 year jail term, was involved in the publication of Charter 08, a pro-democracy petition. News of his prize – though largely ignored in state media – made it into the English-language Global Times, which accused the Nobel committee of “arrogance and prejudice against a country that has made the most remarkable economic and social progress”. The award was “loaded with Western ideology”, it sniffed.

Still, frustration was also surfacing at the “invisible black hands” in state censorship last week, when a group of retired party elders published an unusually blunt letter criticising efforts to stifle the free flow of information.

In particular, they were enraged by the selective editing of some of Wen’s recent comments. “What right does the Central Propaganda Department have to muzzle the speech of the Premier?” the elders asked.

The letter, which was published on Sina, a popular internet portal, was removed hours after it first appeared.

Even before the Nobel Prize furore, there have been signs of wider debate about the appropriateness of political change in China. In July, Qin Xiao, the chairman of China Merchant Bank, told 2,000 graduates of one of China’s leading business schools that the recognition of universal values was at the heart of a number of issues shaping the country’s development. “Universal values tell us that government serves the people, that assets belong to the public and that urbanisation is for the sake of people’s happiness,” Qin is reported as saying.

Supporters of the “China model,” Qin added, believe the opposite: that people should obey the government, the state should control assets and the interests of individuals are subordinate to those of local development.

But it is Premier Wen who has been centre-stage to most of the recent debate. Commentators point to three episodes that have stirred wider interest in particular: a letter to the People’s Daily in April in which Wen recalled the “lofty morality and openness” of Hu Yaobang, a widely respected reformer; further comments at the 30th anniversary of Shenzhen in August (see WiC77), in which he invoked Deng Xiaoping’s example to chastise foot-draggers on change; and a recent interview on CNN in which he alluded again to political reform, and spoke about freedom of speech being “indispensable”. “I will not fall in spite of a strong wind and harsh rain and I will not yield till the last day of my life,” Wen went on to tell his rather surprised interviewer.

In an earlier outburst he’d said: “Without the safeguard of political reform, the fruits of economic reform would be lost.”

What, if anything, can be inferred from Wen’s words?

Some are sceptical of his motives, saying he is merely making a play to be remembered as a would-be reformer before his retirement in 2013.

Yu Jie, a 37 year-old writer who has published a book on Wen entitled China’s Best Actor, gibes at the premier’s occasionally theatrical moments of empathy with the public. “Hu [Jintao, China’s President] and Wen are two sides of the same coin: they believe in stability above all else,” he says. “Many writers and intellectuals have given up expecting much.”

And sure enough, at this week’s Party plenum (see page 1) there was no mention of political reform. Wen may even have marched out too far ahead of the political pack in expressing his apparent frustration with the progress of economic reform in general. Wen Yunchao, a liberal blogger, told the South China Morning Post: “The Party plenum and its communiqué have clearly suggested that Wen’s recent raft of outspoken remarks were his own views, not the consensus of the leadership as a whole.”

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