Not Quite China Plate, Mate: Communicating with a billion people is very difficult

China’s new leader Xi Jinping has recently begun his transition to power, yet significant challenges have already emerged. In particular, a short lived strike by journalists at a national newspaper has brought to the spotlight how far motivated individuals are prepared to push the boundaries of acceptable political behaviour. Xi’s public comments thus far seem to point to reform and greater public participation. Whether the new rhetoric will live up to promises of change will have to be seen.

One of the key elements of Xi’s first speech as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was corruption. Referring to corruption as a “severe challenge”, Xi promised strict new internal Party processes to address and end all corruption within the CCP. He said: “There are many pressing problems within the Party that need to be resolved urgently, especially the graft and corruption cases that occurred to some of the Party members and cadres, being out of touch from the general public, bureaucracy and undue emphasis on formalities — they must be resolved with great efforts”.

Such a statement, acknowledging as it does the significant internal challenges facing the CCP, is extraordinary given its context; coming in the opening address of the new leader of the Party. That corruption is a cancerous distortion in the politics and society of China is patently obvious to even the most casual observer. Corruption is often cited as one of the greatest crises within the regime. The same analysis concludes that the regime is so crippled by it that no redeeming change or reform is possible. Every survey  of social attitudes of Chinese society reveals that people are both concerned and resentful of official corruption, feeling that it brings unfair advantages to the unworthy. So to have the single most important figure within the CCP devote a whole paragraph of his first speech to addressing Party internal-corruption is both important and extraordinary. An acknowledgment of the scale of the challenge that corruption posed seemed to indicate that Xi had brought a new essence of responsibility to office. Yet corruption is so significant an issue, involving powerful players and great vested interests that time can only tell if Xi’s call will bring any semblance of change or improvement to the level of corruption.

In the same speech, Xi said: “They [the people] hope for better education, more stable jobs, more satisfactory income, more reliable social security, medical services with higher standards, more comfortable living conditions and a more beautiful environment. They wish that children will grow better, work better and live better. The people’s desire for a better life is simply the target of our endeavour”. This acknowledgement of the basic needs and desires of the Chinese people; safety, security and comfort, almost seems to indicate a new focus of attention for the regime.

Another key part of Xi’s speech concerned the very nature of the regime’s communication with its people. The inability of the government to communicate directly to the people, free from jargon and empty rhetoric, has long been bemoaned. Xi seemed to recognise a significant deficiency in his comments: “Our responsibility is to work with all comrades in the party, to make sure the party supervises its own conduct and enforces strict discipline, effectively deals with the prominent issues facing the party, earnestly improves the working style of the party and maintains close ties with the people”.

The last part of the comment is instructive: by commenting on the CCP’s ties to the people Xi seems to be acknowledging that there are significant problems in the relations between the regime and society. Again, this is an issue that many Chinese citizens will openly acknowledge. But for any government to openly and publicly recognize that there is a significant communication deficit is no small gesture. But, like action on corruption, time will only tell if such sentiments engender real change.

The grand rhetoric of change and reform within Xi’s address faced its first challenge early in 2013. Responding to a heavy handed act of censorship to a special New Year editorial which called for dedicated implementation of China’s constitution, journalists from the editorial department at the Guangzhou based Southern Weekend went on strike. Typically, Chinese journalists are guided by a form of self-censorship; determining whether a story would arouse the ire of the regime. But in this particular case, the provincial authorities responsible for censorship directly intervened without reference to the journalists in question. For any Chinese journalist to go on strike in protest against corruption is deeply unusual. Journalists clearly felt that such a move would not involve a full and merciless repressive response from the regime. Such conclusions were correct as the authorities quickly came to an agreement with the protestors, agreeing not to directly intervene again unless circumstances required.

Why the journalists at the Southern Weekend chose this particular moment to make a point has more to do with individual circumstances than to the rhetoric or attitude of the regime. If Xi insists on discussing reform the Chinese people will listen. Real change is certainly needed in China. Xi must be careful to manage expectations; the Party will not have the luxury to continue to disappoint or mislead the people.