China’s annual legislative meetings, not known for vigorous public debate, have placed even more emphasis on conformity this year. Participants have been cautioned against impromptu discussions with foreign media in which they might stray from the script.
"This year, we have stricter rules," Chen Jiping, party chief of the official China Law Society and a member of the country’s top political advisory body, told Bloomberg News on March 6. "We’re advised not to take interviews during the meetings. You’d better apply online."
The restrictions are a manifestation of a broad clampdown on dissent under President Xi Jinping that has gathered steam since the National People’s Congress last convened 12 months ago. The curbs have covered activists, rights lawyers and the elite, with party members accused of disloyalty and state media ordered to toe the line. At the same time, a wave of provincial leaders have stepped forward to proclaim Xi as the party’s essential "core."
The expanded campaign comes as China faces the slowest economic growth in a quarter century and advances reforms that could spur the layoffs of millions of state workers. Meanwhile, officials are jockeying ahead of the party’s twice-a-decade congress next year, when five of the seven members of the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee are expected to retire.
Delegates, officials and academics who study Chinese politics describe the current legislative session in Beijing as more tense then past years.
"The leadership is beset by challenges," said Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, and a former U.K. diplomat in Beijing. "The greatest asset their predecessors had was good growth. This is now no longer the case. So the tactical tightening is as much a sign of nerves as strength."
Since taking power three years ago, Xi’s government has reined in China’s Internet, televised confessions of prominent critics and detained five Hong Kong booksellers whose works criticized the party. The push has been accompanied by state media lauding Xi’s efforts to overhaul the economy and casting him as the avuncular hero of China’s masses, in what has been seen as a throwback to former leader Mao Zedong.
The result is what David Bandurski, editor of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, calls "Control 3.0," a dramatic expansion from more modest efforts to guide public opinion under Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. It’s "an all-dimensional vision of comprehensive control across media platforms and bridging the domestic and international frames," Bandurski wrote in an article last month.
Since the new year, the focus appears to have shifted to controlling dissent within official circles, as well:
- The party expelled former Beijing deputy party chief Lu Xiwen in January, citing "improper discussion" of party policies. The term is part of a new code of conduct.
- Xi paid personal visits to top state-run media outlets in February, where they were ordered to act as if "party" was their surname and show loyalty.
- Authorities shut the social media accounts of ex-Huayuan Property Co. Chairman Ren Zhiqiang after he criticized Xi’s media clampdown. He had over 37 million followers.
- Academics at state-run institutions are more reluctant to discuss politics, with one professor citing fears a phone call with Bloomberg News would be monitored.
The effort to present an image of unity permeated the NPC proceedings, which are scheduled to end Wednesday. Delegates from the restive Himalayan region of Tibet, for example, could be seen wearing lapel pins featuring Xi’s portrait to the first day of the congress.
Representatives from the People’s Liberation Army, which has been shaken by both the corruption crackdown and Xi’s sweeping military reform, waved off reporters who sought to interview them as the session got under way March 5. Asked why, an officer with the PLA’s political department said because "a lot of things happened over the past year."
Some participants privately chafe at Xi’s orders for party leaders to study the works of Mao and other communist luminaries. A senior official who attends the legislative sessions said delegates faced too many restrictions and had to study too much political material.
On Monday, Yu Zhengsheng, a Politburo Standing Committee member who heads the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, praised state media for their "productive" coverage during the advisory body’s annual meeting, the official Xinhua News Agency said. The media maintained the correct political stance and spread positive energy during the session, Yu said.
Qiao Mu, a media studies professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University barred from teaching in 2014 after advocating political reform, said the "political atmosphere now is probably at its most intense since 1989." That’s the year that Chinese troops crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
While there’s been little evidence Xi faces any organized opposition, his campaign against corruption has strained party unity and his efforts to slash overcapacity in state-owned enterprises risk upsetting large groups of workers. Next year’s party congress will be a critical juncture of Xi’s tenure and could lay the ground for potential successors.
Several party and government leaders have in recent weeks publicly declared Xi as the party’s "core," with Foreign Minister Wang Yi joining the call in a recent speech in Washington. That elevated status could strengthen Xi’s hand in the maneuvering for top party posts in advance of the congress next year.
"The tightening up reflects a sense of siege -- and this sense of siege is not a fantasy," said Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University who co-wrote "China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files." "The regime indeed has many enemies and is creating more and more of them by virtue of its repressive methods."