China’s Communist Party has been a propaganda specialist from its earliest days. Back in the 1920s, it published a journal titled News of Bloodshed to get its revolutionary message across. And 70 years later, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was at it again, devising a ‘patriotic education campaign’ to ensure China’s youth appreciated the Party’s role. “Our worst omission of the past decade was in education,” Deng told other leaders.
With the economy slowing, some in the Party feel its time to get back on message. This time, however, it’s more a question of what the teacher can’t tell his students rather than what he can.
A new list of “don’t mentions” has been drawn up: seven (predominantly) ‘Western’ concepts that university lecturers are not allowed to discuss with their students. According to a directive leaked on Sina Weibo earlier this month, the list includes: universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, civic rights, historical mistakes committed by the Communist Party, elite cronyism and an independent judiciary.
The South China Morning Post quoted two university professors in Beijing and Shanghai as having been briefed on the new document.
“Are we still a university if we are not allowed to talk about civil rights and press freedom?” one of them asked.
The directive comes at a time when China’s new leaders look set to push though a raft of fiscal, financial and social reforms intended to foster a new era of growth. But this has led to speculation that a compromise may have been brokered with the country’s more conservative elements. The posited deal: in a trade off for making the economy more open, the central government has ordered a renewed bout of propaganda to stifle debate about the Party’s right to run China.
The timing of the ‘don’t mention’ campaign looks as if it is intended to convey the message that economic reform does not mean political reform. Indeed, the heavy-handed attempt to depoliticise university campuses supports the idea of a quid-pro-quo. According to reports by Reuters and the Sydney Morning Herald, President Xi Jinping is planning to unveil a new economic plan in October at the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee. The two news reports say the plan will include measures to liberalise interest rates and reduce capital controls. It will also attempt an overhaul of the fiscal system to ensure that local governments have a steadier stream of tax revenues, rather than having to rely on land sales to raise funds.
Additionally, the plan is thought to contain measures to facilitate urbanisation by reforming the hukou – the Maoist era housing permit that prevents migrant families from enjoying urban schooling, health and other services in the cities in which they work. For more on this see WiC88.
“A top-level team has been set up to draft reform plans for the Party meeting, with Xi taking personal charge,” Reuters quoted a senior economist at a top government think-tank in Beijing as saying. The Sydney Morning Herald said that the man in charge is Liu He, the Harvard-educated director of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs.
Recent moves by the State Council – China’s cabinet, headed by premier Li Keqiang – lends a degree of credibility to these two reports.
In early May the State Council announced plans to cut red tape for 113 types of project and to improve measures for checking the size of local government debt. It also promised to release information on greater convertibility for China’s currency, the renminbi, in the future.
“Facing the current task of stabilising growth, controlling inflation, mitigating risks and striving to foster an ‘upgraded version’ of the economy, it is imperative to take pragmatic moves to deepen reforms,” a statement in Xinhua declared after the meeting.
All of this is arguably good news for ordinary Chinese but a few voices on weibo last week remained concerned by the new bout of censorship. “I am proud of our increasing national power but it is horrible if the ‘7 don’t mentions’ is true,” said one person (whose deleted post was saved on a website called Free Weibo).
The Economist magazine said the attempted restrictions also show how Beijing “proscribes entire realms of inquiry at universities”.
But for those of a more pragmatic bent, the means may justify the ends, if the ban proves a case of one step back, two steps forward.
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