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reflections

Jan 16, 2009 | 02:39 GMT

6 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Freedom of Speech and Beijing's 'Test'

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
An article promoting freedom of speech in China — published on Wednesday in the Beijing Daily News, a periodical affiliated with the Beijing committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) — was being circulated and discussed in China on Thursday. The piece, titled “Truth Cannot Be Pursued Without Freedom of Speech; ‘Authoritative Determination of Nature’ Should Be Avoided By All Means” and published in the paper’s “Theory Weekly” column, criticizes authorities who try to act as a “judge of truth” and stifle dissenting opinions. Written by Shen Minte, a professor at the Communication University of China, the article delivers a subtle warning to officials not to quiet alternative voices hastily; it also suggests, however, that tolerance for alternative voices does not justify alternative actions — only ideas. The article notes that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, and cautions that one cannot determine whether speech is absurd, progressive or reactionary if it is never allowed to be vocalized. Shen links his call for freedom of speech to Mao Zedong’s support for “a hundred schools of thought contending” — though in this, Chen appears to be subtly criticizing the ultimate outcome of the ensuing “hundred flowers blooming” movement, in which open debate was finally crushed once it became too critical of the CPC. Shen says it is only in the open, and through the lens of history, that alternative ideas can be judged. He warns that the biggest threat comes when some “authority” declares itself the “judge of truth” and the masses follow blindly, endorsing or condemning the ideas based solely on the judgment of vocal authorities rather than judging the truth themselves. He raises as examples Ma Yinchu and Zhang Zhixin, two early Party members who raised ideas fundamentally contrary to conventional wisdom or the actions of the Party. Ma warned of the dangers of excessive population growth, and Zhang criticized the Cultural Revolution. Both were criticized, quieted and punished — in Zhang’s case, executed — but years later were proven correct in their assessments and were rehabilitated. In essence, Shen, in a Party-sanctioned paper, is calling for freedom of speech and debate inside the Party, along with a greater responsibility for the citizens of China to test what their officials say, and for those officials to listen more to the people. Shen makes it clear that he is not advocating freedom of action, but only of speech and debate. But his article is a strong criticism of the way some Chinese officials have acted in the past. It is also a critique of China’s culture of official corruption. The article was published the same day the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) called for greater efforts to crack down on corruption in 2009 and reported that nearly 5,000 officials above the county-head level had been investigated and penalized in the year ending in November 2008. Then on Thursday, Prim Minister Wen Jiabao, speaking to a conference of central and state agencies of the CPC, warned that China and the Party face a “test” in 2009 amid the global economic crisis. He called on Party members and government officials to be models of proper behavior and not to abuse their power or positions for personal gain, and to work together for economic growth. For China’s central leadership, Shen’s message is both welcome and dangerous. Encouraging greater citizen oversight and more input is seen as a necessary tool to help rein in corruption and rebuild trust in the Party and government. In addition, the central government has been seeking a wider variety of inputs in policy-making from academia, research institutes and government think-tanks. At the same time, one of the government’s biggest fears is losing control of its citizens: of social unrest and organized opposition rising up and bringing down the Party. As with the Beijing Daily News’ October 2006 publication of Yu Keping’s influential and controversial article, “Democracy Is A Good Thing,” Shen’s article is designed to stimulate debate, but keep things within manageable parameters. Both Shen and Yu made it a point in their articles to avoid overstating the case. Neither promotes the end of the Party or even radical reform — just gradual change within limits — and both caution that their ideas should not be taken too far. Yu praises democracy but also explains its shortfalls, while Shen warns that freedom of speech goes both ways, arguing that both sides need space to express themselves and that neither side should take action based solely on its own ideas. The publication of articles such as these sheds light on the way the CPC is trying to cope with its role in a changing China. The CPC, to some extent, has outlived itself. Economic reforms and the social and political changes that go along with them are outpacing the Party. The CPC is no longer at the forefront of the ideology as it once was; it is no longer able simply to promise people economic improvement, as it did through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Instead, the Party is struggling for relevance at the center of a changed China. It has recognized the need to change, but many Party functionaries have devolved from the leaders of the people into a group of individuals who are stuck in a bureaucracy or living in a system of collusion, self-aggrandizement and personal power relationships. This has left the CPC weak and unable to function as a unit. It also has reduced the stature of the Party as a whole in the eyes of the populace. The people may not be actively trying to overthrow the government, but neither do they have respect for it. When they are not allowed to express their opinions, their frustrations and tensions may explode into protest and violence. Yet when they are allowed to express themselves, that too can become a threat to the Party itself. This is Beijing’s dilemma. The Party cannot allow open opposition — but neither can it retain the loyalty of the people, and its own authority, if it does not allow the people to keep the officials honest. Articles like Shen’s are exposing the failures and weaknesses of the Party, and are calling for gradual change (at least in mindset). However, they also are being used to try to revive the Party, and to try to help it adapt to a changed China. Beijing’s hope is to build some sense of public oversight to hold the Party officials accountable, but without actually allowing the people to challenge the authority of the CPC. It is not an easy balance to strike, and in the end it may not work. But there are those in the CPC who know that if the Party does not change and adapt, it will die.

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