Two weeks after China’s President toured state media offices and called for absolute loyalty from the press, a website with links to the government published an explosive letter asking him to resign “for the future of the country and the people.”
The letter was reportedly posted in the early hours of March 4 by a website called Wujie News, which claimed to be jointly owned by SEEC Media Group, Alibaba and the government of Xinjiang, in China's far northwest. The Washington Post found a cached version of the document that shows the post live on the site. (A spokesperson for Alibaba said the company "never had an equity stake in Wujie," but did sign a "memorandum of understanding" with the company at a government-sponsored event.)
The letter, signed "loyal Communist Party members," lambasts China's president for "abandoning the principle of collective leadership," for concentrating power in his own hands and "indulging" flatterers. Xi's declaration that the press should serve the party, not the people "dismayed the whole nation," it charges.
The strident but anonymous critique was printed amid a string of three other high-profile rebukes of the Xi and his media policy. Taken together these incidents hint at anger and frustration within China's elite — and show a willingness to speak out despite the risks.
Their message to the government: We won't go quietly.
Questions about Xi’s press policy surfaced soon after his “inspection tour” of China Central Television (CCTV) and People’s Daily last month. While visiting the outlets, Xi said the media ought to “reflect the will of the Party, mirror the views of the Party, preserve the authority of the Party, preserve the unity of the Party and achieve love of the Party, protection of the Party and acting for the Party.”
A retired property developer and blogger named Ren Zhiqiang was not impressed. “When did the ‘People’s Government’ turn into the ‘Party’s Government?’” he asked.
“Once all the media is part of one family and stops representing the interests of the people, then the people will be cast aside and left in some forgotten corner.”
Ren’s comments made a splash online but were quickly purged from the Web. Party-backed media soon swarmed, lambasting him as an ungrateful and treacherous advocate “for capitalism” with “vicious” motives, in a smear campaign that some compared to Cultural Revolution-style public shaming.
50 years since the Cultural Revolution, fears rise that it's happening again, with the case against Ren Zhiqiang pic.twitter.com/4efRJAkWEm
— John Pomfret 潘文 (@JEPomfret) February 26, 2016
Undeterred by the attack on Ren, the website of one of China’s most respected magazines, Caixin, last week blasted government censors for asking them to remove an article in which an academic called for the government to heed a greater variety of views.
In the article , an academic named Jiang Hong said people like him should “be free to give Communist party and government agencies suggestions on economic, political, cultural and societal issues.”
Should be, perhaps, but are clearly not: In an English-language follow-up headlined “Story about Adviser’s Free Speech Comments Removed from Caixin Website,” Caixin reported that government censors called the first piece “illegal content,” and ordered them to take it down.
In the second piece, Caixin re-interviewed Jiang, who went on the record about the “terrible and bewildering” act of censorship. “I examined [the article] in all respects, but I couldn’t see anything illegal,” he told Caixin.
As if to emphasize the absurd circularity of it all, the second post was also pulled.
Caixin's rare rebuke to China's censors pic.twitter.com/LxSvmHmCjM
— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsin) March 8, 2016
A man who identified himself as an employee at China’s Party-controlled newswire, Xinhua, on March 7 published an open letter on his Weibo account calling on Chinese authorities to investigate an China's censorship body for infringing on the right to free speech.
The letter included his name, Zhou Fang, his government ID and his phone number, and listed his place of work as Xinhua. A man reached at that number said he was indeed Zhou Fang and said he did not deny writing the letter.
The since-pulled post was a detailed critique of China's approach to digital censorship that compares Xi-era Internet policing to the Cultural Revolution. The letter mentions the case of Ren Zhiqiang and says that the crackdown on Party critics is causing people to lose confidence in the central government.
— China Digital Times (@CDT) March 14, 2016
The March 4 letter was even more strident in tone. Whereas Zhou called on the government to investigate the censors, the short-lived open letter signed "loyal Communist Party members" took it a step further, taking aim at Xi's handling of the anti-corruption campaign, picking apart his handling of the economy and foreign affairs.
"Your indulgence in a personality cult and silencing 'improper discussion of the center' has made those of us who have been through the cultural revolution concerned. Our Party, our country, and our people can not afford another 10 years of turmoil."
If Xi and his Party is worried about the backlash, they are not saying so — or not directly, anyway. A top official, Yu Zhengsheng, this week praised the press for its loyalty, thanking journalists for their "productive," "constructive" and "inspirational" coverage of China's annual legislative meetings.
"The media has maintained the correct political stance," he said, "And spread positive energy."
This article has been updated. An earlier version reported that Wujie news was a joint venture with SEEC Media group, Alibaba and the government of Xinjiang. Alibaba denies it has invested in Wujie. It did, however, sign a "non-binding memorandum of understanding" with the company, a spokesperson said.