Censoring China

April 07, 2013

China’s new president must make his country an attractive place for young people to live, and that includes a space for free expression

“Legalizing all pornography would be wrong; it would lead to more rape and unnatural sex. I commend this measure to the house.” Zeng is an undergraduate at Sichuan University, taking part with 300 others in a debating championship in the thriving port city of Qinhuangdao in northeast China.

Nearby is the seaside resort of Beidaihe, the official summer holiday haunt of communist leaders from Chairman Mao onwards. But this is the new China, where students don’t shy away from topics like: Should the children of government officials be banned from public jobs? Would Chinese universities be more competitive if they were privatized? Should China stop subsidizing labor-intensive industry? Put condom machines in schools? And yes, should China legalize porn?

It’s fair to say that when Mao infamously commanded “Let a hundred flowers blossom, and let a hundred schools of thought contend” this was not what he had in mind. But China’s new generation is finding ways around Internet censorship, hooking up on Facebook and Twitter despite the government’s best efforts to stop them. “This is a critical moment for China, and we have to develop critical thinking,” says a young law student. “Only controversial topics are meaningful now,” says a marketing undergraduate, “because only debating controversial topics will push China to develop as a society.”

China’s new President, Xi Jinping, is drawn from China’s modern, well-educated ‘fifth generation’ leadership—supposedly a less technocratic group born post-1945 with a higher proportion of entrepreneurs and financiers—and he allegedly likes such straight talk. While former French President Jacques Chirac learned the finer points of U.S. geopoliticals during a term at Harvard, Xi imbibed his Americana during a long hot summer of hog-raising in Muscatine, Iowa. Supposedly no “waxwork mandarin”, his 1985 exchange trip left him with a love of basketball, Hollywood action movies—and calling a spade a spade.

In other respects Xi can claim to be part of China’s new generation, too. He made his name as Fujian party chief in the 1980s by supporting a desert management ecological program, and then went on to burnish his business credentials in Zhejiang by promoting new innovative industries over old labour-intensive manufacturing. This bodes well for a country intent on breaking new scientific and technological ground, but does it make Xi a political reformer?

The president surely understands the suffering caused by political repression; he was arrested several times during the Cultural Revolution, when his high-ranking father fell out favour with Mao. This is still China, however, where meetings of the Politburo are dedicated to discussing the “correct handling of contradictions among the people,” an increasing issue since the number of what China terms “mass incidents” (demonstrations) has risen from 8,700 in 1993 to 87,000 in 2005 and 180,000 in 2010, according to the China Leadership Monitor.

One of Xi’s first tests will be how well he connects with his 1.3 billion countrymen during a decade in which the People’s Republic will be subject to unprecedented economic and social strains—and so far the message in confused.

In January authorities moved quickly when the liberal Guangzhou Southern Weekly newspaper stood up to censorship laws by refusing to print a pro-Communist front-page editorial. Debate about the issue was quickly restricted, but word spread and other journalists around the country made gestures of support. The protest was a further attempt at “pushing at the edges” according to Chinese politics expert Rana Mitter who told the Guardian: “I think it shows a leadership that is unconfident in a significant way.”

And, despite Xi’s love of Hollywood, international entertainment companies are increasingly bowing to Beijing’s demands for censored products too. The movie Cloud Atlas was recently cut by 38 minutes for Chinese audiences.

The Chinese themselves are accelerating demands for political and social freedoms, just as economic growth slows. The surging demand for luxury goods demonstrates that the Chinese are getting richer, but that has also brought a host of issues familiar to much of the developed world: personal debt, office politics, and what to do with a growing number of aging relatives.

To support an explosion in China’s elderly population, Xi Jinping must ensure, above all, that the country remains an attractive place to live for young people who, according to a report in the New York Times, are leaving in ever greater numbers, seeking a less competitive lifestyle with fewer working hours (and better air quality) overseas.

Part of that package, as demonstrated by the students at the Qinhuangdao debating tournament prove, will be living in a country with greater freedom of expression. In part the government hopes to maintain a balance—and keep control—by allowing a mixture of individual criticism, while cracking down hard on anything likely to stir mass action. As the spread of the dispute over the Southern Weekly showed, however, that sounds far easier in theory than it is in practice. Keeping the lid on the pressure cooker will be Xi’s biggest challenge.

Add your comment:


Recent Posts


Welcome to my website. I hope these pages give you a flavour of some of my work in books, print, onl…

Recent News

Istanbul Arrival

Last week I was in Istanbul attending a Youth Forum for teenagers from around the world. But not eve…

Nelson Mandela Dies - Grazia

When Nelson Mandela retired after serving one five-year term as President of South Africa in 1999 he…

China Debates....

I’ve just returned from China, after a gap of about 16 years, and I met these undergraduates – comin…

Top Ten Articles

Polio's Last Stand

Eradicating the Last 1% of Polio Is Deadly But Essential

When 40-year-old Liberian civil servan…

Life and Love with 'The Greatest': Muhammad Ali

When Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams was six years old she looked out of her front door in Louisville,…

Momma D: Dionne Warwick, the Grande Dame of Divas

She learnt her stagecraft from Marlene Dietrich; 50 years on, she’s mentor to Whitney Houston and …

India's Barefoot Revolution

What would it be like if women ran the world? In some parts of India, it’s already happening


How one man gave Congo’s women hope

*Life is hell for women caught up in the conflict in the Congo. But one remarkable doctor helps surv…

‘If they gave me a house, I’d take it tomorrow’

All I want is to die under this mountain.” Noor Ebrahim, a slightly-built former messenger for Rea…

It’s murder on your mobile, says The Killing’s Sarah Lund

Hit crime drama The Killing is back for a second series, and Karen Bartlett talks mobile phone foren…

Skateistan: How skateboarding took off with Afghan kids

It’s no surprise that in a world full of rules most kids want to do something with no organisation…

Growing Up X

Fifty years after he was killed, the daughter of Malcolm X wants to make sure her father isn’t writt…

Bringing Anne Frank Home – to Germany

Like many people in their seventies and eighties, Buddy Elias and his wife Gertie are downsizing –…

©2011 Karen Bartlett | Goodcleanfunk