Wen Jiabao Essay Censored as Xi Meets Adoring Tsinghua Crowd

An essay by former Premier Wen Jiabao memorializing his late mother was censored this past week, but it was the essay’s content rather than its erasure that raised eyebrows. Wen wrote poignantly about his family’s suffering during the Cultural and concluded his essay with implicit criticism of Xi Jinping’s leadership. At The South China Morning Post, Zhou Xin reported on the paragraph that observers believe leveled criticism at China’s current government:

Whereas personal memoirs are commonplace among Western politicians, it is unusual for a retired Chinese leader to publish such a personal account because the state maintains rigid controls over all narratives relating to state affairs.

[…] Chinese state media outlets, including the official Xinhua news agency, ’s Daily and Chinese Central Television, did not republish or report on the article.

[…]  “China, in my vision, should be a country of justice and fairness. There’s eternal respect for human hearts, human morality and humanity, and there’s always an air of youth, and hard work. I cried over it and I fought for it,” Wen wrote. “This is the I learned from my life, and this is also the gift given by my mother.”

Wen also described how his father had suffered during the Cultural Revolution, writing: “My father was detained at his school and frequently suffered from brutal interrogations, verbal insults and physical beating. [Source]

CDT Editor-in-Chief Xiao Qiang told Yuan Yang of The Financial Times that the censorship of Wen’s essay reflects deep-seated anxiety about Xi Jinping’s standing in China:

Censorship of such a senior leader would have involved high-level officials and reflects deep-seated anxiety in the Communist party about any threat to Xi’s image, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the University of California.

Popular internet memes that jokingly venerate Jiang Zemin, the former president, have also been scrubbed in recent years.

[…] “For highly political figures like Wen Jiabao, any decision about his words or actions not only has to come from the central propaganda department, it may come from even higher up, such as the central office,” said Xiao, referring to the main body for internal party affairs.

“It is Xi Jinping’s own insecurity about his authority and image within Chinese society that leads to such censorship,” Xiao added. [Source]

CDT Chinese has archived examples of netizens reacting to the censorship with typical black humor:

@stan: “Back in the day we joked [Wen] was the “King of the silver screen,” which shows he was at least pretending to be “the son of the Chinese people.” Right now is even better. They don’t even put on a show. There’s straight up a Great Leader [Mao’s old title] and a constant reminder for you to ‘call him daddy.’” [Chinese]

Another hinted at Xi’s family history: “Using fiction to go against the Party is a great invention, but it wasn’t invented by Premier Wen Jiabao—rather by a different Vice Premier.” Xi Jinping’s father, Former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, was purged in the early 1960s after a novel in which he pseudonymously appeared was deemed anti-Party.

The public statements of top leaders are tightly controlled, and Wen, the second most powerful official in China until his retirement in 2012, is no exception. In 2010, while Wen was still serving as premier, authorities infamously censored an interview he gave to CNN in which he said, “The people’s wishes for, and needs for, democracy and freedom are irresistible.” The censors short directive read simply: “All websites delete content on Wen Jiabao’s CNN interview, including the so-called ‘four wishes for political reform.’” A 2014 speech he gave at his high school alma mater was also censored.

Censorship has also worked to Wen’s benefit. After The New York Times reported in 2012 that Wen’s mother and other family members collectively controlled at least $2.7 billion dollars in assets, a host of terms relating to his family, their assets, and his person were blocked on Weibo.

At CNN, James Griffiths and Nectar Gan commented on the extraordinary context of Wen’s muted critique

The essay was published in an obscure newspaper in Macao, perhaps indicating no mainland Chinese outlet was willing to publish it. Wen could not be reached for comment about the piece.

[….] While to outsiders his criticism may be so subtle as to not merit censorship, for close followers of Chinese politics, an intervention by a party elder like Wen is remarkable, particularly as the is cracking down on even the slightest deviations from the official narrative in the run-up to the Communist Party’s centenary this July.

[…] “Given the political climate, his speaking out itself is an important act — and a veiled criticism against Xi,” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing.

China’s Premier from 2003 to 2013, Wen was widely considered to be a relatively liberal, reformist figure within the Chinese leadership. He was once a top aide to Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was purged for opposing the violent crackdown against protesters on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June, 1989. [Source]

In preparation for the centenary, Xi Jinping visited Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Xi is an alumnus of Tsinghua, which he entered at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution as a “worker-peasant-soldier” student—an avenue open to those with “Red” backgrounds but lacking academic credentials. He later earned a doctorate from Tsinghua while serving as governor of Fujian province—which is approximately 1,500 miles from Beijing. At The South China Morning Post, Jun Mai reported on Xi’s visit and the Maoist rhetoric he used to describe students’ education:

China’s universities should aim to train a new generation loyal to the socialist cause and with an inquisitive and innovative mindset, President Xi Jinping said on Monday.

During Monday’s trip, Xi praised Tsinghua for its tradition of training students who were “both red and professional”, a phrase coined during the Mao Zedong era. The university will celebrate its 110th next Sunday.

[…] Tsinghua later became an important power base for Xi from which he has picked talent to fill key positions.

Chen Xi, a former classmate of the president who has spent more than two decades working in the university, is now head of the Central Organisation Department of the Communist Party, overseeing its apparatchik. Chen Jining, mayor of Beijing, was the president of the university before he entered politics in 2015. [Source]

The receiving crowd at Tsinghua was raucous. The Global Times reported  that students “extended their warm welcome to Xi, calling him ‘Dear Senior.’” One Twitter user wrote, “We’ve lost the right to make fun of Fatty the Third [“Kim Fatty III” is a veiled online Chinese slang term for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un],” after seeing video of the adoring crowds:

Carl Minzner drew attention to Xi’s call for an increased emphasis on athletics—which the Ministry of Education believes can solve the “feminization” of boys, to the scorn of Weibo users:

His visit is part of a broader Party history education campaign that has set “historical nihilism,” the CCP’s label for history that diverges from the Party line, as a main target. At CNN, James Griffiths wrote about ”China’s culture war” and Xi’s push to enforce orthodoxy across society:

“Be firm in your beliefs, always stand with the Party and the people, and be a firm believer and faithful practitioner of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” said Xi, adding that “a splendid flower blooms in the unremitting struggle.”

[…] This will likely only continue over the centennial year: in a piece on “historical nihilism” this week, historian David Ownby noted the phrase had been employed in the past “to condemn historians, scholars, anyone who dares to challenge orthodoxy, received wisdom, national myths,” warning it could be a prelude to further crackdowns on intellectuals and Party critics.

[…] And in a front page piece last week, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, laid out a comprehensive propaganda campaign for the rest of the year leading up to the centennial, under the theme “Forever Following the Party.” [Source]

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