China’s Information Problems Are Only Getting Worse – The Diplomat

Most observers of the Chinese Communist Party’s recent 20th National Congress agreed on at least one top takeaway: General Secretary Xi Jinping’s power is at an all-time high, allowing him to dominate personnel appointments in the top leadership. Xi ignored decades-old precedents on retirement norms within the party, allowing two of his political allies, Zhang Youxia (72) and Wang Yi (69), to stay on in top party posts past the generally accepted retirement age of 68. He forced top officials associated with rival factions, including Wang Yang and Li Keqiang, both 67, into early retirement, bringing loyal allies Li Xi, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang, and Li Qiang into the top leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). While analysts quibble over factional alignments, most agree Xi’s supporters also dominate the broader 24-member Politburo.

Xi’s appointment of proteges and supporters to key positions risks a climate of sycophancy and rigid unanimity in the ranks of China’s top leaders. In the past many of the top Chinese policymakers who were aligned with Xi, such as Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng, had risen through the ranks on their own merits and efforts. The current leadership make-up is filled with officials who owe much of their success directly to Xi, which may create a culture in which self-censorship and acquiescence to Xi’s vision permeate decision-making. 

In such an environment, it will be difficult for crucial information to reach the top leadership, especially Xi himself, multiplying risks and affecting the quality of policy.

Broader Societal Trends

Growing problems regarding information flow within China are not confined to dynamics among top leaders. A recent Associated Press report highlights the problem of growing self-censorship within China’s neican apparatus, a system of classified reports that filter from the country’s grassroots up to the leadership. Chinese academics, journalists, and businesspeople told AP they felt there was an increased risk in giving frank assessments of current events through the neican system as Xi consolidates power.

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Self-censorship is a growing problem in the economic and academic realms as well. A Bloomberg report explained that financial analysts based in Hong Kong and China are increasingly apprehensive that saying or writing the “wrong” thing could put them in the crosshairs of China’s robust security state. Analysts who use a virtual meeting platform hosted by Chinese tech firm Tencent reported online meetings being suddenly cut off after a participant used words or phrases deemed “sensitive,” and were told by officials not to discuss information that could move markets ahead of the recent Party Congress. 

Where Hong Kong used to be an important source of frank and open dialogue on economic issues on the mainland, the imposition of a draconian national security law in 2020 has led to growing self-censorship in the former British colony. Chinese academics have also suffered from tightened restrictions over their activity in recent years, as China turns away from dialogue with academic institutions outside its borders.

These recent developments in specific arenas reflect a general trend toward more censorship and surveillance in Chinese society more broadly. The infamous Great Firewall of online censorship has been reinforced under Xi. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a ramping up of government intrusion into the lives and privacy of citizens via COVID-related smartphone applications has added to a pervasive sense of surveillance.

An Unlikely Chance of Moderation

Some have argued that given Xi’s sweeping consolidation of power at the 20th Party Congress, his invulnerability and trust in his appointees may actually increase his tolerance for dissenting opinions and internal debate. The argument goes that an augmented sense of security will allow close allies like the expected Premier Li Qiang, seen by many as relatively pro-business, to nudge Xi toward easing up on his more hard line policy campaigns. Compared to perceived rivals like Li Keqiang, those closest to Xi may be better able to temper the more excessive aspects of the zero COVID and Common Prosperity policies, which have been a drag on the economy. Xi has also exerted control over the party’s top legal enforcement body, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC), which could serve to bolster his sense of security, potentially allowing for more flexibility.

But these developments won’t make a broader, society-wide opening up of dialogue more likely; the tight boundaries around political discourse appear to be a feature, not a bug, of Xi’s vision for China. One key takeaway from the 20th Party Congress was a heightened focus on national security. In Xi’s China, it sometimes seems like practically every aspect of society is being securitized, and to paraphrase Xi’s own words, political and ideological security are the foundations of national security. It would be difficult to square such a strong emphasis on ideological conformity with any moves toward freer discourse or diversity of opinion. 

Xi’s trust in the newly appointed top leadership may make him more open to a few divergent policy opinions on issues like pandemic restrictions or crackdowns on tech firms, but won’t herald an opening up of discourse in China.

Conclusion

In his hours-long address to the CCP’s 20th National Congress, Xi warned his fellow party-members of the “dangerous storms” that China will face going forward. Part of Xi’s toolkit for facing the perceived threats against China, internal and external, is a party that is ideologically aligned, marching in lockstep toward its objectives. 

As others have noted, a growing siege mentality pervades Chinese political discourse, and the trend toward Xi’s total consolidation of power in elite politics has ironically been accompanied by a rising sense of embattlement and insecurity for the party as a whole. The historical examples of the fall of the Soviet Union, color revolutions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and the Arab Spring give CCP leaders reason to fear the infiltration of potent Western ideas of democracy and freedom. Ideological security is seen as a bulwark against such influences.

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This trend will only make CCP leaders less likely to advocate for intelligent, innovative policies, and more likely to parrot the directives of the center – no matter the consequences. In the past, leaders that have consolidated power over domestic rivals have quashed sources of dissent or difference of opinion to disastrous effect. Xi himself was a victim of the chaotic effects of Mao Zedong’s cult of personality and Cultural Revolution, perhaps modern China’s most infamous case of overconcentration of power in one person. Whether Xi will choose to avoid such trends under his own rule and open up discourse to potentially uncomfortable truths remains an open question.

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