Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Censorship is superfluous in Xi’s ‘New Era’

Both Orwell and Huxley's fears could be realised simultaneously in President Xi Jinping's China.

Passengers watch a broadcast of the opening ceremony for the 19th Party Congress at a Beijing railway station, October 2017 (Photo: VCG/Getty Images)
Passengers watch a broadcast of the opening ceremony for the 19th Party Congress at a Beijing railway station, October 2017 (Photo: VCG/Getty Images)

Tiny children sit in a row on miniature wooden chairs, their attention focused on a television screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping in full oration mode, in incongruous juxtaposition beside the candyfloss-pink play castle of their kindergarten. In hospitals, patients have Xi beamed to the screens above their beds, his image interspersed with hanging drips. In jail, prisoners sit cross-legged upon the bare boards that serve as their beds, notebooks and pens ready to take notes as they watch Xi Jinping. These Orwellian scenes ricocheted across Weibo as Xi spoke for 205 minutes at the opening of the 19th Party Congress.

This new breed of watch parties is startling in its fervour and the showiness of its loyalty, a visual throwback to Cultural Revolution days when sycophancy was a survival mechanism. Even the décor is retro-Maoist, with banners proclaiming 'Long Live the Great Communist Party of China!' and canny villagers waving miniature Chinese flags. At the end of the Congress, a new banner term was unveiled: 'Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era'.

This New Era is one of rigid ideological conformity applied not only to the present and future, but retrospectively to the past, both inside and increasingly outside China. As media scholar David Bandurski notes, the emphasis on Xi's banner term 'marching out' explicitly couches it 'as a vision not just for China, but for the entire world'.

The implications for scholarship on China are long-lasting and profound. Beijing is picking up pace in its efforts to export ideological conformity by coercing Western publishers to block content perceived as politically sensitive. In recent days, two more incidences have surfaced in the wake of the uproar over Cambridge University Press, which first agreed and then demurred to remove 300 papers from its archive inside China. In a case first reported by the Financial Times, Springer Nature has now blocked access in China to at least 1000 articles containing words deemed sensitive such as 'Taiwan', 'Tibet' and 'Cultural Revolution'. Springer told the FT that the censored articles constituted less than 1% of the company's content.

Another case has emerged regarding work published in Critical Asian Studies by two Italian scholars, Claudia Pozzana and Alessandro Russo, on the prominent Chinese intellectual Wang Hui. Two articles were published without permission in Chinese volumes, one of which was edited by Wang Hui himself. Among the material removed was a large chunk of a paper discussing the protest movement of 1989 and Wang Hui's own analysis of the movement. 'The censors' zealous hand has struck not only the most critical points from our papers but, in doing so, has removed the basis of our intent,' a statement from the Italian academics read. It is notable that they refrained from blaming Wang Hui, even though his actions whitewashed the past, as if the events of 1989 had simply not happened.

The ideological work surrounding Xi's Thought has already started in earnest inside China. Beijing's prestigious Renmin University is taking the lead in pioneering Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, but has been followed closely by at least nineteen other academic institutions. The education ministry is putting the Thought of President Xi on primary and secondary school curricula almost immediately, or 'into textbooks, into classes, and into the brains (of students)', as Education Minister Chen Baosheng phrased it. For adults, there will be study groups set up in cities across China, according to the Global Times.

China has been laying the groundwork for years. In May, lawmakers amended the civil code to add the offence of historical nihilism, meaning that the defamation of Communist heroes and martyrs is now a civil offence. This targets any work offering unauthorised perspectives on Chinese history, such as Hong Zhenkuai's work questioning elements of the patriotic tale of the Five Heroes of Langya Mountain.

These moves are also affecting Western scholars. In a recent episode of the Little Red Podcast, the University of Melbourne's Dayton Lekner described how he was interrogated by internal security over his research on the 1957-59 Anti-Rightist movement, while legal scholar Glenn Tiffert of the Hoover Institution unveiled his research showing empirical evidence of Chinese censorship of the electronic archives of legal journals to excise evidence of earlier debate on legal issues.

One academic spoke of how, while visiting China, they did not dare telephone their Chinese collaborators for fear that contact alone would cause trouble. Another Westerner reported that, following the 2011 pro-democracy protests nicknamed the Jasmine revolution, the names of certain flowers were censored from their work because of their political sensitivity. That reminded me of an anecdote I was told by author Yan Lianke in 2012. He was so tired of censorship that he decided to give up writing on anything but his garden. Nature, he figured, was beyond reproach. To his dismay, censors excised his description of ants marching across a tree trunk like soldiers (in an unfortunate addendum that reads like one of his absurdist novels, his beloved garden was destroyed when his brand new house, purchased just four years before, was demolished to make way for a building project).

As the author of a book on the legacy of Tiananmen, it is notable that the 1989 protests have become more – rather than less – sensitive over time. Authorities have stepped up their action against those who publicly commemorate those deaths, such as activist Chen Yunfei who was given four years in prison after he was detained visiting the grave of a 1989 victim. The protests of 1989, and the resulting crackdown, have largely been expunged from the collective memory. How long before those who mention it are seen as historical nihilists?

While giving talks at universities in Australia, the US and Europe, I have noticed a shift in questioning among young Chinese students in the audience. When my book first came out in 2014, they would question whether Beijing's suppression of the movement was so very different from crackdowns elsewhere. Recently, the questions are more likely to be underpinned by the logic of stability maintenance, circling around the idea that the very knowledge of 1989 is damaging. 'Why do we have to look back to this time in history? Why do you think it will be helpful to current and nowadays China, especially our young generation? Do you think it could be harmful to what the Chinese government calls the "Harmonious Society"?', one young Chinese audience member asked me in June.

Such discourse makes the preliminary findings of a new draft paper all the more apposite. The paper, co-authored by Yuyu Chen at Peking University and David Y Yang at Stanford, seems to indicate the success of the Communist Party's censorship of the internet. The researchers provided more than 1000 undergraduate students from two Beijing universities free access to software allowing them to bypass internet censorship. Eighteen months later, nearly half the students had not bothered to use their unfettered internet access. Of those who had used it, less than 5% browsed foreign news websites. One reason for this low uptake was the belief that such uncensored information was simply not valuable. Their curiosity had effectively been neutered. The researchers conclude that lifting censorship on the internet is unlikely to be effective because Chinese citizens have such low demand for uncensored information.

The paper starts with a quote from Neil Postman: 'What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who would want to read one.' The ideological conformity of the New Era hints at a frightening prospect: that both Orwell and Huxley's fears could be realised simultaneously in Xi Jinping's China.

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