Saturday, February 18, 2006

Cracks in the Wall

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial [$] today on China. Key Comments.

Political signals are never easy to read in Beijing. But it sure looks like big news that highly placed editors and intellectuals have dared to protest against the Chinese government's recent crackdown on a newspaper for publishing a critical essay.

The drama started with an essay published January 11 in Freezing Point, a weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily newspaper. Dryly titled "Modernization and Historical Textbooks," the article by Zhongshan University professor Yuan Weishi suggested that Qing Dynasty mismanagement had encouraged foreign invasions -- a stark contrast to official textbook versions of the history.

What might have aroused the censors was the implication of a parallel with today's corrupt Communist Party. Mr. Yuan's conclusion -- an indictment of the Party's historical fictions -- probably didn't digest well, either. In a country of 1.3 billion people, Beijing's select leadership circle seeks to retain control through its tight grip on information and historical accounts. So the cadres did what they do best: They shut the offending journal and reshuffled the management.

Unlike past cases of censorship, this time intellectuals rebelled. On Tuesday, 13 retired government officials, journalists, and academics issued an extraordinary open letter protesting the closure. "The Communist Party's Propaganda Department has perverted 'propaganda' into 'control,'" they warned. "This constitutes a violation of the constitution." Signatories included a former associate of Mao Zedong and former heads of the party propaganda department and its arm, the Xinhua News Agency.
There is a sharp disconnect in China between the new generation of ambitious, well-educated people and the party's ham-fisted methods of maintaining control. Take Tuesday's defense of Internet monitoring at a Beijing press conference: China's censorship is "completely consistent with international practices," an official claimed. The fascinating thing is that the government felt obliged to defend itself, as if it realizes that the criticism of Chinese Internet controls expressed at a U.S. Congressional hearing on Wednesday will surely make it back to the mainland.

The Communist Party will find it increasingly harder to control the many channels through which China's middle class interacts with free nations. Whether it's through business, or access to even limited international news via the Internet, the Chinese people are starting to understand that they're not enjoying all of the fruits of their labor. As for Freezing Point, by the end of the week the propaganda mandarins in Beijing had backed down a bit, saying they will allow it to reopen next month but with new editors.

That's certainly progress of a kind for a Communist system that once brooked no dissent at all. China's commissars may have to accommodate more such openness far sooner than they imagine.


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