Patrick Brown: Testing the limits of China's new leaders

This month saw an unprecedented national uproar over press censorship and pollution in China's largest cities, Patrick Brown observes. See this as a test of incoming president Xi Jinping's stated desire to be a man of the people.

Xi Jinping takes over in March determined to be 'a man of the people'

Journalists and other anti-censorship protestors hold banners outside the headquarters of Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, in early January. The Chinese characters on the mask read I want to speak (Reuters)

As Beijing suffocates under a gloomy blanket of pollution, which tastes as bad as it looks, people are beginning to wonder whether the long dark winter will ever end.

My friend Hu Jia, one of China's most persistent and resilient activists, however, has noticed a sure sign that spring is on its way.

"Today was my first illegal detention of 2013," he posted on Twitter on Saturday, after being prevented from leaving his home by plainclothes agents of the State Security Bureau.

"The reason is the 'two meetings,'" he added, using the shorthand phrase for the annual session of China's parliament coming up in March.

The arrival of delegates to the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Consultative Conference is invariably preceded by house arrest for activists like Hu Jia.

There is also a roundup of the sad legion of "petitioners" who come to the capital seeking redress for a myriad of injustices, as well as a general clean up of the city and a visible tightening of security.

This annual campaign against the usual suspects seems to be underway early this year perhaps because there has been more than the usual testing of the state's patience — witness the huge national uproar earlier this month over a censored editorial at a popular newspaper in Guangdong, and the current unexpectedly virulent public debate over Beijing's pollution.

In addition, this session is especially sensitive. It will complete the transition of power from President Hu Jintao to a new team led by Xi Jinping.

Game time

Xi and the new politburo members took over key positions in the Communist party at the party congress in November. In March, the training wheels come off.

The old guard retires from all their government positions, including the presidency, and the Xi Jinping era begins.

A man wearing a mask walks along a street in central Beijing, on Wednesday. Beijing temporarily shut down 103 heavily polluting factories and took 30 per cent of government vehicles off roads to combat dangerously high air pollution, state media reported on Tuesday. (Jason Lee / Reuters)

To that end, Xi has been working hard to cultivate his image as a man of the people.

In the process, he has earned points with many Chinese during his first official trip by travelling in a small group of vans, instead of in an outsized motorcade, and by eating simple meals instead of lavish banquets.

That first visit was to the southern city of Shenzhen, the first of the Special Economic Zones that began the experiment in market economics that has transformed China — and the world — over the past 35 years.

By choosing Shenzhen, Xi appeared to be signalling a commitment to further economic reform, as well as claiming the legacy of Deng Xiaoping, the former "paramount leader" who visited Shenzhen to revive China's economic transformation in the 1990s.

As he takes over from Hu Jintao, Xi has also won points for a speaking style that is very different from his predecessor, who excelled at robotic recitations of turgid propaganda.

By contrast, Xi sounds refreshingly human and forthright, on one issue in particular: corruption.

Ordering officials to follow his lead when it comes to motorcades and banquets, Xi has also promised to tackle both high officials who amass enormous wealth, and lowly ones whose greed and arbitrary rulings are the plague of daily life.

"We must shut power up in a cage, and strike tigers and flies at the same time," he has said.

How powerful is public opinion?

Many Chinese are, of course, skeptical of what's being promised, predicting that this anti-corruption campaign, like many before it, will fizzle out after netting a handful of scapegoats.

After all, China's main political families, including Xi's, have amassed fortunes in the hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.

But the message is getting through in some circles at least: leaked official reports describe a sudden glut of luxury homes on the market as corrupt bureaucrats try to cash out before they get caught.

Xi's first months in the limelight have also made it clear that he may have to take into account one factor that has not much bothered his predecessors — public opinion.

One reason that he's promising action on corruption is the tidal wave of gleeful internet outings of official misbehaviour.

Across China, officials are being brought low by pictures of their luxury watches, their mistresses and their real estate holdings.

A man apart? China's newly appointed leader Xi Jinping takes office officially in March. (Reuters)

Today, 564 million Chinese are online, and more than a billion have cellphones. And they are pushing back against a colossal censorship effort to control what they see and say.

In January, there was an unprecedented national uproar over censorship at an outspoken newspaper, Southern Weekend, in Guangdong province.

Journalists at the paper staged a brief, but nevertheless historic, strike, because a traditional year-end article was rewritten by censors to transform a call for respect for the constitution and the rule of law into a hymn of praise for the Communist party.

Police eventually rounded up demonstrators and ended the strike, but not before an outpouring of support online and in other publications made it clear that public patience with censorship is running thin.

Another case in point is the public anger over the poisonous miasma that has been swirling over Beijing and an area of northern China the size of Alberta and Manitoba combined for the past four weeks.

After years of trying to minimize pollution by publishing false figures, China Central Television and other official news organizations have begun reporting on the real extent and the causes of the problem, and the government has been promising measures to deal with it.

Different dreams

These examples of new openness, however, should not necessarily be taken to mean that Xi Jinping will usher in an age of reform.

The Communist party has only bowed to public opinion grudgingly, when its back is against the wall, and when it fears that public ridicule is becoming unmanageable.

Once a crisis is over, authorities tend to reverse any gains that seem to have been made.

In his speech in Shenzhen, Xi spoke about "the Chinese dream" of national revival — a notion that shows every sign of becoming one of the signature slogans of his administration.

"Why did the Soviet Communist party collapse?" he asked. "An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken."

Xi then went on to say that "the 'China dream' is an ideal. But of course, as communists, we should have a higher ideal, and that is communism."

In China's political lexicon, communism no longer means a political and economic system described by Karl Marx. It means one-party rule in perpetuity.

That means there is a significant disconnect between a leader who believes China's future depends on more Communist party control, and large segments of the population that appear to want much less of it.

As always, the Chinese language has a perfect phrase for the occasion: In the same bed, dreaming different dreams.