Mia Chen, Qiao Long and Lau Siu Fung | Radio Free Asia
Chinese government censors have prevented social media users from sharing an article penned by former premier Wen Jiabao that appeared to take a subtle sideswipe at ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping.
The eulogy from Wen to his mother, who died recently, was published in the Macau Herald weekly newspaper on Friday, and has since appeared in full on the social media platform WeChat. Soon afterwards, it had been blocked from being shared or retweeted.
“In my mind, China should be a country full of fairness and justice, always with a respect for the will of the people, humanity, and human nature,” said the last paragraph of Wen’s article, which did not directly discuss China’s current political environment.
While the article didn’t address contemporary politics in China, it described some of the struggles of Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) under late supreme leader Mao Zedong, in connection with Wen’s mother.
Analysts said the article was likely seen as a challenge to ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping, as it offered a perspective from an earlier leadership, when controls over freedom of speech weren’t so stringent as under Xi, and when Wen once told the foreign media that pressure from within China for freedom and democracy was “inevitable.”
The blocking of the article comes as the CCP launches an all-out propaganda offensive to sanitize and take control of public narratives about its own history ahead of its centenary on July 1.
The Cyberspace Administration last week set up a hotline for people to report each other to the authorities for failing to toe the party’s freshly revised line on matters of history.
Fear of democracy and rule of law
Cai Xia, a former professor at the Central Party School in Beijing who now lives in the United States, said the article had likely already been subjected to self-censorship before publication.
“This shows just how much the totalitarian regime in mainland China fears democracy and the rule of law,” Cai said. “They are afraid to give rights to the people.”
Premier Wen told CNN in 2010 that freedom of speech was “essential,” while he viewed the Chinese people’s desire for freedom and democracy as “inevitable.”
U.S.-based scholar Wu Zuolai said the 78-year-old Wen’s huge cachet as a former Chinese leader likely led to the restrictions on the article.
“This is a former national leader at the rank of premier, and they have blocked even a moderate article like this one,” Wu said.
“These means they won’t allow any articles that could be seen as offering veiled criticisms or of fomenting dissatisfaction [with and within the CCP],” he said.
He said the overall political line alluded to by Wen’s article is taboo under Xi, who is currently serving an unlimited second term in office after changing the constitution.
‘Reform’ remarks in 2012
Wen is remembered in particularly for a 2012 press conference at the National People’s Congress (NPC), his last in office, during which he mentioned the word “reform” several times, including in the context of political reform.
“It’s not just the economic system that must be reformed; it’s the political system as well, especially reforms to the party and state leadership system,” he told reporters at the time.
Meanwhile, Xi was also calling for “justice” in what analysts said was the harbinger of a new era in foreign policy more closely akin to the Cold War than recent approaches.
“The world wants justice, not hegemony,” Xi said in remarks broadcast to the Bo’ao Forum on Tuesday. “A big country should look like a big country by showing that it is shouldering more responsibility,” he said.
While Xi did not identify any country in his remarks, Chinese officials have in recent times referred to U.S. “hegemony” in public criticisms of Washington’s geopolitical stance.
Xi’s remarks came amid widespread international criticism of the human rights situation in Xinjiang, which the U.S. government has said is an ongoing policy of genocide against the Uyghur people.
Chinese state media have also begun hitting out at social media accounts that engage in ostentatious displays of wealth, with one celebrity content creator Big LOGO apologizing for a recent video showing off wealth.
“This is a warning to everyone that they can’t shout about this kind of luxury lifestyle,” a Beijing resident surnamed Yu told RFA. “They fear there will be an online reaction, and maybe even some looting and smashing, so they are trying to control that [before it happens].”
Zhang Kunlun, a scholar from the northern city of Taiyuan, said the criticisms come amid a growing gap between haves and have-nots in China.
“The economy isn’t doing well in wake of the pandemic, so the gap between rich and poor has widened,” Zhang said. “The government wants to avoid a scenario in which that provokes public resistance [to the CCP].”