IS CHINA’S new Communist leader a reformer? Following a decade of unyielding autocracy in China under his predecessor, Xi Jinping clearly believes it politic to hint at that. His first tour after taking power in November was to the southern city of Shenzhen, where the country’s economic reforms were launched 30 years ago. Mr. Xi has spoken up about official corruption — perhaps the greatest source of popular discontent — and allowed unusual publicity about his family, including a daughter who attends Harvard. But these are superficial signs, and there are plenty of counter-indications, including a new tightening of controls on the Internet and rising tensions with Japan that Mr. Xi himself may have encouraged.
What is becoming clear is that the new leader faces considerable pressure for real change — not from his ossified party apparatus but from China’s intelligentsia and emerging middle class. A vivid demonstration of that has been the protests over the censorship of a pro-reform newspaper, Southern Weekly. For its New Year’s edition, it prepared an editorial calling for “constitutionalism,” only to have it rewritten by a censor. Loud protests by the paper’s staff, which threatened a strike, quickly spread to the Internet, where they won support from bloggers, businessmen and celebrities. “Hoping for a spring in this harsh winter,” wrote one actress to her 19 million microblog followers, according to the New York Times.
A demonstration outside Southern Weekly’s offices in Guangzhou on Tuesday attracted hundreds of people; meanwhile, publications around the country balked at running an editorial supplied by the party propaganda department in Beijing, which bluntly declared that a free press in China is impossible. Despite this hard line, local authorities chose to negotiate with the newspaper’s staff and on Wednesday reached an agreement that averted the strike.
The issue of press freedom, as well as of constitutionalism, is not likely to go away. A week before the Southern Weekly’s editorial, a group of 72 mainstream intellectuals released a “Proposal for Consensus on Reform” that called for adherence to the Chinese constitution. The boldness of this seemingly innocent idea lies in the fact that the constitution nominally guarantees free speech and free assembly. As The Economist reported, the authors are not dissidents but established scholars from leading universities and think tanks.
The Communist regime has ignored many such petitions or thrown their authors in jail. But the danger of doing so is growing: The academics warned that without systemic reform, popular discontent could lead to “the turmoil and chaos of violent revolution.” That view is surprisingly widespread in China despite the country’s extraordinary economic success. Even former premier Wen Jiabao warned on his way out that “political structural reforms” were necessary.
Mr. Xi is not likely to respond anytime soon. He will not assume his full station until March, when he takes over as president, and it could take him years to consolidate power, if he ever does. But the new leader has been put on notice: His people are unlikely to accept another decade of inflexible dictatorship.