Speech on the Chinese Internet, it seems, is beginning to thaw once more following the country’s leadership transition. After months of speculation, new Chinese leader Xi Jinping was announced on November 16 at the close of the 18th Party Congress, which accompanied a slowdown in the country’s Internet and the silencing of certain dissident voices. Now, Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, is coming alive again with discussion about China’s future.
On November 19, the nationalistic Chinese newspaper Global Times published a piece calling for “harmony” and solidarity from Chinese liberals, i.e. reformists. Hu Xijin (@胡锡进), chief editor of Global Times, then took to Weibo with his take on what the article meant. He wrote:
Liberals (自由派) should contribute to the harmony and solidarity of our society. Liberalism is the necessary balance for conservative forces in society. In practice it constitutes an important source of social criticism, but every society must balance freedom and governance. We hope liberals can be more constructive for social balance; this should be seen as a well-intentioned expectation for them. But in the past, liberals called for reform with great enthusiasm, but often showed little interest in promoting social solidarity. Some people think that their sole mission is to criticize, and the more uncompromising the criticism is, the more justice it will do; while maintenance of social solidarity is officials’ business, or other people’s business, they do not have this obligation.
This statement soon triggered debate on freedom and democracy in China comprising a total of over 1,400 reposts and over 900 comments. Most weighed in to disagree with Hu.
In particular, commenters noted that Chinese liberals—i.e. reformists—seem to face a catch-22. He Peihua (@何培华律师), executive editor of the Civil and Commercial Law Review, complained, “What the Global Times wants to say is that liberals are an important source of social instability, so liberals should do something for the harmony and unity of society. But I’m worried that once someone is labeled as a liberal, he or she is already being watched.” He later wrote that what the government really wants is “graveyard stability,” (坟墓里的稳定), as “dead people are stable for sure … because they have nothing to discuss.”
Xie Wen (@谢文), former general manager of Yahoo China, wrote, “Harmony and solidarity can only be realized among people with equal rights. If you deprive people of their freedom of speech, how can there be harmony and solidarity?” Zhu Zhuanghong (@朱庄虹007), chief editor of Financial Practice, seconded that notion: “Liberals’ freedom to contribute their views is already restricted, what else are they supposed to do?”
Peng Xiaoyun (@彭晓芸), a freelance journalist with 110,000 followers, implicitly turned the question back at Hu, asking, “Who’s the one dividing society? Who is the one considering the voice of disagreement as the enemy?”
But Hu did have his supporters, although they comprised a minority. @封掉6464 wrote, “Having gone through the Cultural Revolution, we know how scary turmoil is. Chinese liberals only see the problems in China instead of progress. So their views are not objective, and thus incorrect. The freedom they promote is to overthrow China, although they are doing it in the name of promoting the progress of China. Such ‘freedom’ should be forbidden and [lead to] jail in any country.”
Not all criticism of liberals was so circumspect. User @HAH-I offered a stark reminder of the attitudes still arrayed against Chinese reformists: “In China, the vast majority of liberals have others names: Traitor, sellout.”
Although Hu Xijin’s tweet offered a good summary of the official Chinese position toward would-be reformers, reaction to his words shows that Hu missed an important component of public opinion: Many Chinese consider liberals to be integral to solidarity. Perhaps @阿辉说事 said it best: “The call for reform itself is an expression of harmony and solidarity, the most fundamental expression. The author [Hu] has made a serious logical mistake. You know that China must reform, on the other hand, it seems that you are holding onto something you don’t want to give up.”