The Return to the Old Ways

As the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress is approaching in Beijing, a wave of academic and media censorship has been hitting the country in ways not seen in decades. The improving state of freedom of speech people were enjoying on social and traditional media is currently being clamped down by authorities in an attempt to prevent any forms of criticism or dissent ahead of the 19th Party Congress on October 18th of this year. The event is expected to see some important revisions in the Party’s Constitution and the election of new leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee.

Last week, three current affairs TV programs from Hong Kong were cut off the air. Watched by millions of Chinese not only in China but in the rest of the world as well, the popular program Qiangqiang san ren xing was interrupted after 19 years on the air without any explanation given by authorities. The TV show discussed various topics ranging from entertainment, international politics and social issues to literature, economy and history.

Other TV stations have also removed their most-watched entertainment programs at prime time without notice. During the run up to the 19th Party Congress, those stations are expected to broadcast movies and programs endorsed by the CPP. In a communique emitted last July, the government issued a release announcing it would put forward content that “better welcomes the major propaganda period of the 19th Party Congress”.

On the Chinese twitter ‘Weibo’, WeChat or other social media, a new system will be put in place in order to prevent users from ‘misleading public opinion’. Both the internet providers and the users administrating discussion groups will be compelled to take measures to either delete or report any content deemed controversial. Some sort of Orwellian ‘credit rating system’ will also measure how users behave on the internet. Users with a bad rating would be banned from posting or commenting online.

A week ago, the history professor Yuan Tengfei from the Capital Normal University saw his Weibo account deleted. The popular professor was a renown critic of Mao Zedong whom he called one of the ‘three great despots’ of the 20th century. Yuan Tengfei expressed his controversial views on television, in his books and in his university lectures which were posted online by his fans. The history professor is joining other academics who have have been punished for their views in the last years. Among them, there was the Beijing Normal University assistant professor Shi Jiepeng who was fired in August 2017 for calling Mao Zedong a ‘devil’ and the Peking University economics professor Xia Yeliang who was fired for his support of democracy and constitutionalism.

Journalists also seem to have been the target of authorities in the last ten years or so. The amount of journalists jailed by the Chinese government has risen by 65% between 2015 and 2005, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The recent events in China indicate that the relative liberalization of media observed in the last decades might have been more an anomaly than a new norm. The old authoritative ways appear to be making a come back in the country, leaving the optimistic supporters of free speech with a bad taste in their mouth.

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