David Cohen

David Cohen


You recently wrote an article that argued Xi Jinping might be China’s first social media president. Others have suggested that Beijing is increasingly embracing social media and seeking to use it to advance Communist Party interests. Can you describe the CCP’s strategy for co-opting social media?

I don’t think the CCP has a strategy for dealing with social media.  If you look at what has happened to media since Xi took office a few months ago, it’s been a pretty strange mix of tighter regulations being announced, on the one hand, and both social and traditional media pushing the limits and successfully having an influence on a lot of local governance, on the other.  I think the evidence is pretty clear that there are a lot of arguments going on inside the party about dealing with and using social media.

Xi certainly seems to be more interested in social media – official media has been using microblogging more since he was promoted as party chief, including to report on his trips throughout the country, and there’s a Weibo account that is rumored to be maintained on his behalf by someone close to him – but if he’s trying to get control over it he’s doing a pretty lousy job.

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It does seem that Xi is on the side that’s more willing to tolerate, and perhaps encourage, a slightly more aggressive media.  I think he’s hoping it will create pressure for some of the reforms he wants to undertake.  He almost certainly wants to take on corruption – as evident from the five-year anti-corruption campaign announced on Thursday and Xi and President Hu saying that corruption threatens the legitimacy of the Party and its ability to hold onto power. But changing things like that is really difficult, even if you are the president of China, and if you’re asking officials to give up the way they fund their lifestyles you need to give them a very powerful reason to do it – I think he’s calculating that the only thing stronger than greed is the Party’s fear of instability, and that bringing popular discontent out into the open will scare officials into line.  So I don’t think that he’s trying to manipulate social media so much as betting that if it was let off the leash a bit it would push the Party in a direction he wants to go.

But, if this is true, there are definitely a lot of people in power, including in the Politburo, who are still trying to keep a firm grip on the media – look at the Southern Weekend case.

Let’s talk about the recent standoff in Guangdong between provincial propaganda officials and the well-regarded newspaper Southern Weekend. Before the two sides worked out an agreement to end the impasse other similar protests were being waged by newspaper editors elsewhere including in Beijing. Do you believe that this will be a continuing trend in 2013 with mainland media organizations increasingly refusing to acquiesce to Party directives?

Well, if the timeline Reuters had is accurate, most of those protests actually happened after they’d already worked out the agreement.  I’m not trying to quibble here – I think this underscores just how ham-fisted the censors were with this affair.  They could have put the issue behind them as “rebellious newspaper continues to be pretty rebellious,” instead they wound up pushing all these much more conservative outlets, like the big web portals, to defy them.  For the web portals, I think this was the first time.

So I’d be really surprised if we didn’t see more of this.  There were basically no consequences for any of the media outlets who defied censorship – except Beijing News, whose publisher was fired for actually refusing to run the editorial.  And even then, they buried the editorial in the corner of page 20 and had “Southern Porridge,” this pretty transparently pro-Southern Weekend piece, on the front page of their web site all day.  It’s also worth noting that, when they first refused to run the piece, censors ran to their offices to negotiate, and the report said the officials wound up basically begging the publisher to back down – it seems clear that they weren’t authorized to shut the paper down, and they’d overstepped their bounds with the directive.

If the Reuters story about the agreement is accurate, Southern Weekend basically got what they wanted – [Guangdong Party chief] Hu Chunhua promised to relax censorship on them, and to fire Tuo Zhen, the chief censor of Guangdong province, as soon as he could without looking like he had given in.  Also, Asahi Shimbun has this (unsourced) report that Xi blamed the information ministry for pushing too hard with the editorial.  I believe it – it would be pretty surprising if he hadn’t.  Their mission is to uphold “harmony,” and they shot themselves in the foot.

So I think we can certainly expect to see more media outlets pushing back against censorship – it seems like the censors have demonstrated that they’re kind of toothless.  Of course, that could change at any time if the Party’s top leaders decide that the press is going too far and manage to agree on a crackdown.

Sticking with the Southern Weekend standoff for a moment, one aspect of the controversy I didn’t see a whole lot written on was that it took place soon after Hu Jintao protégé Hu Chunhua took over as party secretary in Guangdong. How do you think Beijing viewed little Hu’s handling of the crisis in general? What do you believe are his greatest challenges in continuing to move up the ranks?

Hu certainly came out of this affair better than anyone else who got involved in it, but I don’t think he broke any new ground.  He basically followed his predecessor Wang Yang’s “Wukan model” playbook, acting more as an arbitrator than a policeman.  I don’t see what else he could have done – as a party official, you can’t ignore a “mass incident,” and given how clearly the central leadership wasn’t willing to stand behind a censorship crackdown, I don’t see any chance they would have supported him violently suppressing the protests.  So I think Hu did a fine but not innovative job – he correctly read what the leadership wanted him to do, and he defused the protests as quickly and quietly as possible.

That said, if Xi is able to build a consensus around reforms, being head of Guangdong is going to be a huge opportunity.  They’re going to be looking to the provinces for successful policies to bring up to the national level – a sort of “laboratories of autocracy” system – and Guangdong is the place that has by far the most experience with a relatively free press and market reforms.  If Xi wants to work on the rule of law, Guangdong even has an experiment with a more independent judiciary going on in Shenzhen.  But Hu will have to be careful if he wants to start experimenting with a “Hu brand” in policymaking – we all know how that worked out for Bo Xilai.

Back in November you predicted that Xi would make a number of reforms aimed at reducing corruption, privatizing the economy, and rebalancing it to make economic growth less dependent on public investment in infrastructure. Do you still believe Xi will attempt these goals and what would you say are his chances of succeeding?

I was making a bit of a facetious point with that article – at the time, there were a lot of editorials in the Economist and other publications saying approximately “Mr. Xi needs to understand that corruption and land seizures are bad things and put a stop to them,” which I find pretty silly – these have been major, and very public, topics of concern for the top leadership at least since Hu Jintao took over. So I was pretty confident in predicting that at a minimum Xi would continue to sort of pick at these big problems as the previous administration did.

But in fact Xi’s first few months have been really dramatic – he made a big effort to signal an interest in reform, and so far it seems like he’s been welcoming all these responses from liberals who are trying to push various causes.  I think this is almost certainly a tactic to build up pressure for some kind of substantial reforms – presumably, Xi is calculating that he can’t count on anyone inside the party to make sure they’re carried out, so he’s decided to give the press and the public more latitude to help make sure they are.

So is cracking down on corrupt local officials going to lead to some bigger changes – going after high-level corruption, or breaking up some of the state monopolies to rein in their power?  I think this would make sense, especially as there’s a good deal of evidence that the top leadership feels that its power is slipping away in favor of the industrial and financial powerhouses.  But it could also be that Xi has a very conservative understanding of reform – that he thinks the problem is just some bad low-level officials ruining things for the rest of the Party.

I don’t think we can really answer these questions yet.  The National People’s Congress meeting in March will most likely produce some evidence on this – I’ve heard from people who are better-plugged in than me that there might be some restructuring of how the big SOEs are held, which would be how you’d start making big economic changes.  But I don’t know.

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