The Southern Weekend censorship row (good reports can be found here, here, here, here and here) has cast light on the limits of political reform in China. I am one of those who sees this, initially at least, not as a potential breakthrough of liberalization in the wake of a leadership change, but, rather, as a reminder of precisely the opposite: how even the most modest possibilities of change (we are talking, after all, about an editorial that called for adherence to already extant constitutional principles) will be blocked by a Party leadership obsessed with holding on to its hegemonic power. I think Bill Bishop gets it generally right:
Mr. Xi increasingly looks to be a staunch Dengist, meaning he believes in pursuing major economic reform while maintaining the unchallenged rule of the Communist Party.
Loosening controls on the media flies in the face of the Party’s decades of focus on ideological work and propaganda control. One or more midlevel officials involved in this mess may need to be sacrificed for expediency, but significant change is unlikely.
The only caveat I would add here is that "major" economic reform is now a political question: what is required is weakening the power of state-owned enterprises and vested interests to open the way for increased consumption and dynamism in the economy. And it is not clear that Xi is willing to take on such "major" economic reform.
But there is a somewhat smaller, less prominent, aspect of this affair that I want to discuss: a statement put out by a group of Confucian scholars that defends constitutionalism and freedom of expression. It is entitled: 中国儒者就《南方周末》新年献辞事件告天下书 ("Declaration by Chinese Confucians on the "Southern Weekend" New Year's message incident"). I haven't yet found a complete English translation; so, I'll just refer to a few passages of it, to provide a sense of what it is about.
Before that, though, I should say that this heartens me. Previously, I had not been particularly impressed with the efforts of contemporary Confucians to craft constitutional answers to the PRC's political problems. They tend to be too deferential to centralized authority, unwilling to argue forcefully for protections of individual liberty against instrusions by the state. In the book, A Confucian Constituional Order, Jiang Qing, a prominent PRC Confucian thinker, defends freedom of speech only as an afterthought, in response to a critic. It seems not to be a central concern of his. Thus, it is notable that Jiang takes the lead in the statement on Southern Weekend; his name is first among the dozens of signers. Good for him.
The declaration is straightforward. After noting the editorial interference that occurred at the paper, it asserts:
From this we can see, the news reporting autonomy of "Southern Weekend" has suffered a grave assault, such that its capacity to serve the public good has been gravely weakened.
The presumption here is that newspapers should be autonomous from poltiical authority in order to serve a broader public good. The words they choose are insturctive. 自主权 suggests an "ability to make one's own decisions," but implies "autonomy" 自主, with a slight hint of "sovereignty" 主权. The latter is obviously not meant to be taken literally. The Confucians are not calling for a dissolution of state sovereignty. But they are saying that media should have considerable autonomous power. Of course, newspapers, or any media, in China do not have that kind of independence. The Party very carefully and extensively oversees what can be circulated. Thus, although the Confucians' statement might be taken as a call for a return to the status quo (the presumptive problem being that in this particular case political authorities overstepped their bounds by interfering with the paper), it is actually a potentially more radical statement of freedom of expression. That is further suggeted by this sentence:
We belieive that these sorts grave infringements on the conduct and institutions of media autonomy and national freedom of expression are contrary to China's excellent political traditions and the modern spirit of rule of law.
Thus, they claim freedom of expression (表达自由) as an aspect of "China's excellent political traditions." This suggests that standard Communist Party propaganda and media control are contrary to Chinese tradition, and thus lack a certain Confucian legitimacy. They make this point even more forcefully in the next sentence:
National freedom to express every sort of opinion, including direct criticism of power-holders, is a political and constitutional principle that has always been inherent in the excellent political traditions of Chinese civilization.
Notice: "direct criticism of power-holders." This is precisely what is not allowed now. This is a statement that fundamentally rejects current political practices and institutions in the PRC. It is a defense of thoroughgoing reform.
The invocation of "constitutional principles" here dovetails with the petition signed last month by 70 scholars that called for the realization of principles, including separation of power and freedom of expression and more genuine representation, that are included in the extant state constitution of the PRC. By calling attention to the divergence between what is stated in the current constitution and how the CCP actually rules provides some rhetorical leverage for reformers, to which the Confucians are now adding.
Confucians quite naturally - if they are adhering to the principles of Confucianism - should find themselves in opposition to the CCP. And, indeed, Confucians, in the post-Mao era, have voiced various sorts of critques of Party rule. Jiang Qing has been rather direct in rejecting Marxist-Leninism:
“…we are naturally drawn to the following conclusion: ruxue [Confucianism] should replace Marxism-Leninism and revive its orthodox historical position, to become the orthodox thought representing the lifeblood of the Chinese (Zhonghua) nation and the national spirit in mainland China today.” (John Makeham, Lost Soul: “Confucianism” in Contemporary Chinese Academic Discourse, pp. 262-263)
But these sorts of criticisms are usually expressed in academic settings or publications, away from the glare of national poltiical attention. What stands out about the Confucians' declaration on the Southern Weekend incident is its public and political character. They are intervening in the public sphere at a significant moment to put forth an argument that fundamentally rejects the CCP's conception of political power.
My sense is that this will not have all that great a political impact, at least in the near-term. Party leaders are not going to shake in their boots because a few dozen intellectuals come out with a critical statement, even one as scathing as this. One could imagine Xi Jinping asking the quesiton that Stalin was said to have asked about the Pope: "how many divisions do they have?" Intellectuals and journalists in China do not have power. But they could be influential in how others understand power and how power-holders use their power at critical junctures.