Post-game Analysis: Making Sense of the Hu vs. Li Smackdown

Welcome to the post-game analysis of the Hu vs. Li smackdown that has occupied much of our attention over the last week.

In one corner, we had Li Guangman, a relatively unknown blogger who rose to fame when his fiery essay about an impending “profound revolution” in Chinese society was republished en masse by state media outlets—but only on their online or social media accounts.

In the other corner, we had Hu Xijin, propagandist extraordinaire and editor-in-chief of the state-owned tabloid Global Times, weighing in with an essay, posted to his personal blog, excoriating Li’s essay and pooh-poohing the notion of any sort of impending revolution—profound or otherwise.

For days, social media was buzzing with excitement about the big smackdown between these two mismatched opponents, and rife with speculation about what powerful interests might be lurking in their respective corners. Events took an unexpected turn on Friday, September 3, when WeChat and Weibo summarily blocked searches for Li Guangman’s account, and imposed limits on the sharing and reposting of Hu Xijin’s post.

Just a few hours later, there was another twist, when the sharing restrictions on Hu Xijin’s post were suddenly lifted, no explanations given. This led many sports fans to wonder exactly what sort of heavyweights Hu had in his corner.

Here are some highlights of the play-by-play:

@teamlipei  Searches for Li Guangman’s account are now restricted. Sharing and reposting of Hu Xijin’s article is also restricted. Looks like they both got smacked down.

Hu’s [post] can now be shared again. That guy’s got juice. [Chinese]

@chehongnian  In this fight, it seems like Hu Xijin has taken the lead. [Chinese]

Surely this is not the last we’ll see of these contenders, nor the end of the ideas they espouse and the backers who may be wagering on the outcome of this fight. Perhaps there is another smackdown, or even a shakedown, in the offing. In the meantime, let us attempt to make some sense of the events of the past week.

The abrupt social media sharing and search restrictions may have been a bid by propagandists and press regulators to dampen the controversy that both articles generated, as Jun Mai and Guo Rui detailed in the South China Morning Post:

Both Li’s and Hu’s articles are currently still searchable on China’s internet but Weibo restricted the circulation of Hu’s piece on Friday, indicating that the propagandists wanted to put a lid on the controversy before it spiralled out of control.

According to a Beijing-based media source, verbal instructions from press regulators have been passed on to Chinese media operators about Li’s article, acknowledging that it had created greater impact than expected, asking them to balance it with “milder content”.

A media scholar familiar with state-messaging said it was significant that Li’s article did not make it to any printed form in state media.

“An article won’t land in printed form in [state] media unless it has a high degree of endorsement,” said the person, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “Now it might only be a test of public opinion.” [Source]

Many who read Li’s essay found its incendiary rhetoric alarming, reminiscent of Cultural Revolution-era screeds. The fact that it was reposted by so many state media outlets led some to wonder if it might be a shot across the bow, as Wenxin Fan reported in The Wall Street Journal:

Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst and former political science lecturer at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, said fears about a return to Cultural Revolution-like circumstances are distracting from the less dramatic but more consequential retreat from a less-controlled society that began after leader Xi Jinping came to power nearly a decade ago.

[…] Mr. Wu, the former Tsinghua lecturer, said the dissemination of the essay, even if offset somewhat by Mr. Hu’s rebuttal, had achieved its desired effect. By tapping into memories of the Cultural Revolution, he said, entrepreneurs will be more willing to comply and intellectuals more inclined to remain silent.

“It was meant to intimidate,” he said.

Mr. Hu, the Global Times editor, acknowledged the chilling effect in his essay.

“Such language would evoke some historic memories and trigger chaos in minds and panic among people,” he wrote. Mr. Hu confined his differences with Mr. Li to the rhetoric of revolution, rather than on the legitimacy of the crackdowns, to which Mr. Hu offered no objections. [Source]

“Some Chinese commentators have compared Li’s blog to the first dazibao that sowed the seeds of the Cultural Revolution,” noted Yawei Liu, Chief Editor of the U.S.-China Perception Monitor, in a recent commentary dissecting Hu Xijin’s response and analyzing what it tells us about the current political situation:

Importantly, Hu Xijin does not dispute the facts listed by Li Guangman. What he strongly disagrees with, however, is what these events mean. To Hu, recent actions by the Chinese government and CCP are policies designed to regulate the market, to stop capital from barbaric growth, and to restore social justice and equality. In other words, the goal of these policies is about improving effective governance and gradual social progress— they have nothing to do with a seismic revolution.

[…] What is even more intriguing are the circumstances of Hu Xijin’s daring critique of Li Guangman. Hu is an insider with strong knowledge of how the Chinese government approaches propaganda. Either his own conscience has dictated his behavior, or he was encouraged by someone inside the government to challenge Li Guangman— perhaps someone wants him to speak up and test the limitations of acceptable discourse before they speak up themselves? Or, perhaps, insiders want to test the waters of public opinion before another government decision is made?

There is one thing for certain: this debate indicates there is raging debate inside the CCP on the merits of reform and opening up, on where China is today in terms of social and political stability, and about what kind of nation China wants to become. [Source]

In combination with the appearance of Li’s article and Hu’s rebuttal, ongoing regulatory crackdowns on industries as varied as tech, education and entertainment have spooked businesses and investors. On Monday, Reuters reported on two statements that seemed intended to provide some reassurance

China’s Vice Premier Liu He vowed the government would keep supporting the private sector amid growing concern a regulatory crackdown on a wide range of industries was hurting businesses.

Liu said, “guidelines and policies for supporting the private economy have not changed… and will not change in the future,” according to a report from Xinhua news agency.

[…] Liu appeared to be signalling reassurance to businesses during a crackdown on a range of industries, which has roiled markets and left startups and decades-old firms operating in an uncertain environment in the world’s second-largest economy. 

[…] Also on Monday, the head of the market regulator repeated a government promise to support both the private and public sectors, and also said the “transparency and predictability” of policies should be increased. [Source]

One final, and intriguing, possibility is that the promotion of Li Guangman’s article presages the release of a new “resolution” on the history of the CCP, which would allow Xi Jinping to place his imprimatur on a new era in China’s development. China Media Project’s David Bandurski delved into this explanation and offered a detailed analysis of how it might play out in the coming months:

A number of scholars and observers in recent years have predicted the release of just such a resolution. Analyst Gao Xin (高新) wrote in 2018 that Xi Jinping’s release of a third resolution on history was “simply a question of time.” The same year, Deng Yuwen (邓聿文), the Chinese journalist and former Study Times editor, wrote in the New York Times that if Xi wished to “truly open a ‘new era’ belonging to himself,” then “he must carry out a ‘correct’ summarization of the historical experiences of the past 40 years of reform and opening.”

[…] This week, in light of the Li Guangman article, Deng has again suggested that a new resolution from the Party on its history is imminent, and could be unveiled at the 6th Plenum of the 19th Central Committee in November this year. In fact, there may be some clues in the language emerging from yesterday’s Politburo session.

It was pointed out at the meeting that, by learning from history, we can understand [the laws] of rise and decline. Summarizing the major achievements and historical experiences of the Party in its century-long struggle to build a modern socialist nation century of struggle is necessary to persist in the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, is necessary to enhancing a political mindset, a macro-mindset, a ‘core’ mindset, and a mindset of compliance, to maintaining confidence in the path, confidence in [the Party’s] theories, confidence in the system, confidence in our culture, and to firmly maintaining General Secretary Xi Jinping’s status as the core of the party center and the entire party . . . .

In this passage we can clearly see, despite the thickness of the rhetoric, the link between the protection of Xi Jinping’s “core” status and the reading and summarizing of the Party’s “century-long struggle.” It may be difficult to see what social and political changes lie ahead for China. But a new resolution re-framing the Party’s history is not difficult to foresee – and history has certainly shown that such political acts can have profound implications. [Source]

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