China Needs Critical Voices
Why China shouldn’t seek to homogenize online and media discourse.
By Yang Hengjun
June 11, 2015
At the recent Central United Front Work Conference, President Xi Jinping said that the government will change its methods and strengthen the united front work aimed at non-Party intellectuals, overseas students, and representatives of new media. This speech made a big splash. China’s public intellectuals and “Big Vs” (influential opinion leaders with verified social media accounts) became agitated, worrying that they would be “united” with the Party.
It’s worth considering what’s behind this sentiment. After Xi’s speech, many netizens believe that the ultimate purpose of conducting united front work toward non-Party intellectuals and opinion leaders, those who are responsible for voicing criticisms, is to offer these figures amnesty, recruit them to the Party’s cause, and thereby eradicate different voices. Thus the critics will eventually voice a uniform opinion, just like China’s over 5,000 mainstream newspapers and periodicals and thousands of state televisions and broadcasting stations. This viewpoint breaks the “united front” into two sections: “unify” those who can be recruited and fight against those who can’t be. In the end, there will be only one voice left. No wonder many people consider “positive energy” to be the same as singing China’s praises.
In my opinion, such an understanding of Xi’s united front is biased. The ultimate purpose of the united front is indeed shared by all: to realize the rise of China and the rejuvenation of Chinese nation, to improve people’s living standards, to see the Chinese people serve as the masters of the nation, to assure human rights, etc. I cannot agree with the idea that seeking a “united front” with intellectuals and opinion leaders aims only to unify their voices and even their thoughts.
There’s no problem with using a united front to build consensus, but it’s difficult for a united front to actually unify voices – and we shouldn’t try. I don’t believe that Xi was speaking of such a united front. If you want to create uniform voices and eradicate different thoughts, cannons (or in North Korea’s case, anti-aircraft guns) are obviously more effective than a united front. Nowadays, there are only a few countries like North Korea, where different voices are eradicated and people with different views are forced to shut up.
Xi proposed this new way of thinking about the united front just as some Party and government officials, including some angry voices online, were condemning critical voices from non-Party intellectuals, new media opinion leaders, and “Big Vs.” As far as I am concerned, Xi put forward the united front to acknowledge and affirm these three kinds of people. Otherwise, given the government’s strength, it would be easy for it to intimidate us into silence. Actually, over the past few years, those non-Party intellectuals and Internet “Big Vs” who dare to speak their minds have become as rare as wild pandas. It’s at this moment that Xi proposed a new united front. I prefer to interpret this positively.
I think that China and the Chinese government need critics. This is significant, as it concerns not only whether China can enjoy stable and healthy development, but also whether the Communist Party can hold power continuously and successfully.
No country or government should lean to one side and hear only praises in the course of development. They more urgently need different voices, including well-meaning and constructive criticisms. A country without competing voices, no matter its characteristics, will never be better than North Korea. Of course, there must be a limit to “noise” and critical voices — and this limit comes from constitutional regulations. Look at the democratic systems in Western countries. In principle, they use the constitution and institutions to publicize and legalize the open expression of critical voices. Thus very often, Western opposition parties and the media replace the public (who are busy earning a living) in expressing essential and necessary opposition and critical opinions.
However, China currently has single-party rule, quite unlike the West. Of course, today this one-party rule is different from that under Mao Zedong or Stalin. The difference lies in the fact that though opposition parties are not allowed, non-party intellectuals, especially the new media voices that emerged along with the development of the Internet, have taken up the responsibility of well-meaning and constructive criticism. Although they are often suppressed and frequently accused of acting “illegally,” they often make suggestions for the country and plead on behalf of China’s people, playing a role similar to that of Western opposition parties. And the Chinese government has reaped a fairly rich harvest from their suggestions.
I noticed a similar phenomenon all the way back in the initial stage of the reform and opening-up. On the one hand, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was imperious with its “no comments,” “stern warnings,” and “protests” toward criticism from the outside world. On the other hand, more and more special organizations and important departments (including intelligence agencies and Xinhua News Agency, for example) collected unflattering news about China from foreign political circles and foreign media outlets. Since the time of Deng Xiaoping, China’s government has been quite studious, with “opening” as its primary task. The government collected many valuable lessons from those foreign criticisms, which played an irreplaceable role in China’s reform and opening.
Thanks to the development of the Internet, Chinese today are generally enlightened and awakened. We do not need to turn to foreign media for criticisms about China, especially the government. On the contrary, foreign media now get clues from China’s Internet. I have emphasized many times that many popular reforms and measures of the Chinese government can be traced to suggestions made online. But in most cases, the root source is simply complaints, anger, and resistance at the grassroots level. Then some intellectuals and “Big Vs” who care about society collect, research, and spread these complaints, which, without exception, influence the policies and decisions of the government.
China needs such critical voices and the government of China needs critics, as they offset some of the defects resulting from a one-party system. I think the following sort of “united front” will be the best for China and its rulers. First, the authorities should listen to different voices — correct what mistakes there are and guard against mistakes that haven’t been made. The government should also reach a consensus with all sectors of society, especially non-Party intellectuals and opinion leaders, and seek the greatest common divisor. Having a “united front” does not mean homogenizing critics and making them voiceless, but rather encouraging and persuading them so that they can put forward more constructive criticisms and protect their rights of free speech and criticism in accordance with the law.