Striving for Freedom in the Chinese New Year

At The Washington Post, Perry Link and CDT founder Xiao Qiang point out a hollow in Xi Jinping’s “China dream”, between individuals’ material wishes and the “spiritual” goals of the state. What is deliberately missing, they suggest, is the aspiration for personal dignity articulated in January by Southern Weekly’s censored New Year message.

One might ask why Southern Weekly’s notion of dignity cannot simply be inserted into Xi Jinping’s China dream. Why should it conflict with either material improvement or national strength? The problem — and Southern Weekly editors wrote the point plainly — is that personal dignity depends on personal rights, and such rights can be secure only under a constitutional system of government.

“Constitutional government is the basis for the entire beautiful dream,” they wrote. “Only when we have established constitutional government, only when the powers of government have been limited and separated, will citizens be able to voice their criticisms of authority with confidence and be able to live in freedom, in accordance with their inner convictions. Only then will we have a free country and a country that is truly strong . . . . The real ‘China dream’ is a dream for freedom and constitutional government.”

[…] After officials of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department “revised” the Southern Weekly statement, all of the lines quoted above had been removed and were replaced with words from Xi Jinping’s speeches about materialism and state power. It was announced that the editors had made these changes, and the result was published as “Message for 2013: We Are Closer to Our Dream than Ever Before.”

Propaganda officials’ actions sparked popular outrage in Guangdong and online. At the same time, the strong-arm tactics show the weakness of the party’s position. China’s rulers are well aware that something is missing in their version of the dream. Charter 08 and the original Southern Weekly statement both put “individual dignity” at the dream’s center. If it were true, as the regime often maintains, that such ideas are “Western” and stirred up only by “external hostile forces,” then there would be no reason to censor them or to jail their proponents. Authorities could simply publish the ideas and then watch the Chinese people inoculate themselves by rejecting them as “un-Chinese.” But no one is clearer than China’s rulers that this would not be the case.

See more on China’s constitutionalist movement and Xiao Qiang and Perry Link’s previous collaboration on subversively coded online slang, via CDT.