Censorship of Frank Economic Discussion and “Ten Questions About the Private Economy”

In recent weeks, several widely shared Chinese-language articles about economics and finance have been deleted by censors, and one prominent economist has had some of his social media accounts banned. This suppression of frank economic discussion is taking place amid concerns about China’s fragile economic recovery, Moody’s recent downgrading of Chinese sovereign bonds, investor perceptions of inadequate economic stimulus, and an annual meeting of the Central Economic Work Conference that seemed to emphasize short-term stability over longer-term structural reform.

Bloomberg’s Sarah Zheng, Lucille Liu, Zibang Xiao, and Jing Li reported that Weibo sent notices to some site users, cautioning them to avoid “badmouthing” the Chinese economy:

The social media service, often compared with X, sent notices to users warning them to “avoid expressing pessimism about the economy,” according to a memo circulating online that one recipient confirmed to Bloomberg News.

One Weibo user focused on finance, with more than 76,000 followers, said in a Thursday night post that they were privately told to post less about the economy, and instead shared a lighthearted video about US baseball. Another Chinese markets blogger, with more than 16,000 followers, posted a separate notice asking bloggers to “avoid crossing the red lines” particularly around economic or financial topics.

[…] The Ministry of State Security said Friday that negative comments on the economy would endanger national security. “Various clichés intended to undermine China’s economy have appeared consistently, in an attempt to use false narratives to construct a ‘discourse trap’ and ‘cognitive trap’ that China is in decline,” the ministry said in a post on its official WeChat account. “This is an attempt to strategically contain and suppress China.” [Source]

In an example of extremely belated censorship, a September 2012 Caijing magazine interview with famed economist Wu Jinglian was deleted from WeChat earlier this month. The extensive interview, which experienced a resurgence in popularity after it was shared by WeChat finance and economics blogger Leng Xiao, discussed the need to curtail state interference in the economy, continue market-based economic reforms, and strengthen the rule of law. The now 93-year-old Wu Jinglian was—and perhaps still is—one of China’s most recognizable and widely respected economists, known for his frank pronouncements and incisive analysis. A 2003 editorial in the Wall Street Journal opined, “If there’s one economist in China always worth listening to, it’s Wu Jinglian,” and described him as a “master diagnostician.” Two months before the Caijing magazine interview, in a keynote speech at a global conference sponsored by the International Economic Association, Wu Jinglian declared, “China still lacks a legal foundation that is indispensable for a modern market economy. Government officials intervene in the market at their will through administrative means.” Eleven years later, it seems that Wu’s critiques are still relevant enough to alarm China’s censors.

Another recently censored article is “Ten Questions About the Private Economy”—published and later deleted from the WeChat account “Caijing 11”—in which four prominent Chinese economists (Huang Qifan, Liu Shijin, Shi Jinchuan, and Zhang Jun) discuss a number of economic and structural issues with journalists from the finance magazine Caijing. The ten offending questions were as follows:

1. Why are many private businesses struggling right now?

2. Why do “involution” and overcapacity affect so many different industries and professions?

3. How can private businesses adapt to the changes in this current phase [of economic development]?

4. What are the systemic challenges affecting private economic development?

5. How can the government give businesses a genuine sense of security and confidence?

6. How can we resolve the inequalities wrought by the advent of private enterprise?

7. Is it still necessary to classify businesses according to their ownership structure?

8. What kind of relationship should the government and businesses have?

9. On the topic of “a correct understanding of innovation,” what role should the government and different types of enterprises [public/SOEs, semi-public, privately owned businesses, SMEs, corporations, etc.] play?

10. What is your opinion on the trend of foreign capital shifting away from mainland China? [Chinese]

A more personalized form of discourse censorship was inflicted on economist Liu Jipeng, dean of the Capital Finance Research Institute at China University of Political Science and Law. On December 7, some internet users noticed that Liu seemed to have been banned on several social media platforms. Users on Douyin, Toutiao, and Weibo reported that his accounts were not permitting users to follow him. His Bilibili account appears unchanged. According to some news reports, the social media bans against Liu’s accounts are likely in retaliation for his recent comments on the moribund Chinese stock market. In early December, Liu gave a keynote speech at a finance conference in which he criticized stalled reforms in China’s capital markets. Noting that China has had 45 years to enact “reform and opening” policies and 33 years to develop its capital markets, he said that this is still “a market with an unfair distribution of wealth and a lack of justice.”

The topic of Liu’s social media accounts being banned in retaliation for him giving his honest professional opinion sparked lively comment and discussion online. Many commenters on Weibo were alarmed by the shrinking space for open debate about China’s economy, financial system, reform efforts, and rule of law:

剑雨剑:A list of influential economics and finance wonks who have been hit with multi-platform bans: 1. Han Zhiguo 2. Dan Bin 3. Wu Xiaobo 4. Liu Jipeng 5. Shuipi [Lu Pingbo] 6. Hong Rong 7. Xu Xiaoyu. Now the only ones who are allowed to talk are Editor Hu [Hu Xijin] and Director Li  [perennially bullish fund manager Li Daxiao]. [sarcastic doge emoji]

假如生活欺騙了你921:I thought our society was becoming more transparent, more equal, and freer. But when I read that Liu Jipeng was banned, I had to admit that I was being naive, once again.

Angelo_汪:Liu Jipeng being banned is an example of their tried-and-true method: if [the government] can’t solve the problem, it will punish the person who brought the problem up for discussion. [Chinese]

This post was updated to include an additional paragraph from the Bloomberg article.


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