News analysis

Xi's softer stance on free speech raises eyebrows

Experts say recent conciliatory tone suggests pushback within party over the President's strong-arm tactics

Having presided over tighter control of public, party and media discourse during his time in charge, President Xi Jinping recently made a series of surprisingly conciliatory remarks on freedom of expression.

During an inspection tour of central Anhui province last week, he urged officials to not "interfere in the creative work of intellectuals" and to "accept constructive criticism and be more tolerant and inclusive".

This followed comments Mr Xi made at a separate forum on cybersecurity last month, where he said officials should "heed public opinions" online and show Internet users "greater tolerance and patience".

Then on Tuesday, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece People's Daily published a transcript of a speech he made in January, saying that the party's leadership was not trying to curtail debate or criticism.

Instead, the CCP merely does not want its members to "sing out of tune on key political principles", Mr Xi said at a meeting of the party's internal corruption watchdog.

The accommodating tone he adopted in these comments has raised eyebrows, coming from a leader who is widely seen to have clamped down on political discourse since taking power in 2012. This included instituting jail terms in 2013 for those who write defamatory posts online that get widely shared.

The latest surprising overtures suggest there could be a pushback within the CCP over Mr Xi's strong-arm tactics, particularly the more recent ones which are seen to be harsher, experts told The Straits Times.

Among the party's recent efforts to quell dissent is the introduction of the phrase "wang yi zhong yang" - loosely translated as "improper discussion of party policies" - to the CCP's new disciplinary regulations last October. Since its introduction, this phrase has been included in the announcement of disciplinary investigation against several senior party officials, including Beijing deputy party chief Lu Xiwen and former Xinjiang Daily editor Zhao Xinyu.

Then in February, while on a rare tour of China's top three state news organisations - People's Daily, news agency Xinhua and broadcaster CCTV - Mr Xi declared that state media must be "surnamed Party", as he demanded absolute loyalty from the organisations' journalists.

These forceful actions appear to have triggered a disgruntled reaction from some quarters of the CCP, which may have resulted in Mr Xi's recent comments to pacify them, said Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam.

He said an example of a pushback is the apparent refusal by party cadres to declare Mr Xi as the "core" of the CCP's leadership, after the term first began surfacing in January. Widespread adoption by party members would have been a symbolically important elevation of his status, but it has so far failed to take root.

"Mr Xi's recent statements may be conciliatory moves ahead of the important 19th Party Congress next year, where the party will hope to present a more united front," noted Dr Lam.

The more liberal stance on discourse, however, is likely to be temporary, rather than a sign of a shift in Mr Xi's views, experts say, given that the central tenet of Mr Xi's leadership revolves around his undisputed control. Since he took power, Mr Xi has moved away from the prevailing model of collective leadership towards strongman rule reminiscent of former chairman Mao Zedong.

In keeping with this shift, the control of discourse will be applied pragmatically, with the CCP's legitimacy and his consolidation of power as priorities, noted UniSIM senior lecturer and China expert Lim Tai Wei. "Mr Xi's administration will loosen and toughen policies on public media and discourse freedom contextually and selectively, to shore up legitimacy for the party and to garner support," he said.

Indeed, even while Mr Xi appears to be offering olive branches, influential and outspoken Chinese tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was on Monday slapped with a one-year probation for a "serious violation of party political discipline". The authorities had closed his social media account on the Twitter-like Weibo - which had 37 million followers - after he questioned Mr Xi's demand of loyalty from state media during his February visit.

"Mr Xi's position has not changed despite his recent comments," said Renmin University political expert Zhang Ming. "Who knows what is 'constructive criticism' or 'improper discussion'? Under these vague definitions, freedom of expression will continue to be restricted."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2016, with the headline 'Xi's softer stance on free speech raises eyebrows'. Print Edition | Subscribe