China's online Web discussion, and thus much of the free public discussion period, is restricted to the Twitter-like service Weibo, allowing the state to maintain tight control over what its 200 million-plus users talk about. One of the Chinese Web censorship's central features has long been blocking searches for the names of top leaders. The state, ever obsessed with stability, painstakingly guards the public images of its senior leaders, whose names are in ways synonymous with the Communist Party-run system itself. But China's rule might be changing, and it appears to be starting at the very top.
When new leader Xi Jinping came into office, many observers anticipated reforms but have been disappointed on issues such as Tibet. But Xi's government might have been the catalyst of a symbolically significant reform on Web censorship: China's Internet users can search his name on Weibo now. Here's the Reuters report, including a bit on the timing that suggests Xi may be directly responsible for the change:
China must deepen reforms to perfect its market economy and strengthen rule of law, Communist Party chief Xi Jinping said in southern Guangdong, echoing groundbreaking comments by reformist senior leader Deng Xiaoping in the same province 20 years ago.
Xi's call for reform was reported on Monday, coinciding with an apparent easing of Internet search restrictions that the party has energetically used to suppress information that could threaten one-party rule.
China's largest microblog service unblocked searches for the names of many top political leaders in a possible sign of looser controls a month after new senior officials were named to head the ruling party.
Tellingly, a number of other senior leaders are still blocked on Weibo, including Premier Web Jiabao, who's held the top-tier office since 2003. That Xi might be leading by example on softening Web censorship could be a promising sign for future reforms. Loosening restrictions could increase already-high public pressure on local and national officials, but it could also provide a healthy outlet for dissent, though it's doubtful that Chinese leaders see it that way. The nation's Web restrictions, some of the tightest in the world, are also an economic issue, keeping Chinese citizens from fully engaging in the globalized and increasingly knowledge-driven economy.
Allowing Weibo users to search for its leaders – and thus much more freely discuss the strengths and weaknesses of paramount rulers such as Xi Jinping -- isn't on a major shift, but it could portend one.