Evaluating “Democratic Development” in China

Southern Weekly, a leading publication in China known for its preference for economic and political reform, issued a surprising public statement today.  “The row at the Southern Weekly – known for hard-hitting investigations and testing the limits of censorship – erupted after a new year editorial calling for guaranteed constitutional rights was changed at the last minute to one extolling the virtues of the Communist Party.  In two open letters, 35 prominent former staff and 50 interns at the paper have demanded the resignation of the provincial propaganda chief in Guangdong, Tuo Zhen” (BBC). 

The demand to fire a provincial official comes after another prominent journal, Yanhuang Chunqiu, was closed following its demand for the CCP to protect the right of all Chinese citizens to speak and mobilize freely.  Southern Weekly may or may not share the same fate as Yanhuang Chunqiu, but these two incidents of media activism have some asking questions about the progression of democratization in China.  Since the Tiananmen protests of 1989, foreign observers, especially those from the West, have targeted incidents of Chinese dissent in efforts to gauge the strength of the regime and popularity of broad political reform throughout the population.  Generally, those focusing on dissent to the contemporary system led by the Chinese Communist Party overestimated the appeal of democracy.

The same is true here.

Contemporary China has its fair share of problems and dissent/opposition against the CCP is growing.  However, the growth of opposition should not be interpreted as a growth in democracy’s popularity.  Most incidents of dissent in China are based on legal problems, unsustainable development, and community issues.  These two media outlets may have been fighting for free speech in China, but the truth is that their fight will likely not resonate among the population (if the population hears about it at all).  Even if the population keys in on these incidents, many will see it as a regional issue – not one that diminishes the legitimacy of the CCP on a national stage. 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.



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