BEIJING – The well-observed vociferous clamoring for press freedom in China, ignited by protests at the country's most prominent weekly newspaper Southern Weekend, was a vignette shot of how new leader Xi Jinping is seen by both reformists and conservative factions, thinking that he belongs to them.
Some see Xi as a reformer who will boldly lead the nation onto the "Road to Rejuvenation" (fu xing zhi lu). Others see him as a conservative who is willing to reach out to a wide spectrum of the masses to "massage" their pent-up calls for political reforms, while remaining faithful to the traditional interests of the Communist Party.
For the last several days in Guangzhou, a southern city where the Asian Games were held in 2010, the Communist Party's provincial propaganda chief reportedly watered down the news paper's editorial, which demanded the officialdom conduct their behavior more in accordance with China's Constitution. The altered final version simply praised the Communist Party and the achievements it has made.
Incensed journalists and editors called foul and refused to work. That was uncommon and courageous in China where censorship in journalism is the norm. What happened next was even further interesting.
As supporters of the journalists' protests gathered outside the newspaper's office demanding press freedom, they were also confronted by a group of individuals who defended the Communist Party's way of doing things, including censoring the media. The two confronting groups bickered with each other, believing that their cause was supported by Xi.
Upon his installation two months ago as the Communist Party's new czar, Xi tried to portray his image as reformist, vowing to crack down on corruption. He sounded open-minded, by cutting down on verbiage in official functions. He behaved as a down-to-earth leader, by sharing a humble meal together with local people in Hebei Province. Unlike his rigid predecessors, who didn't allow the media to report about their family details, Xi allowed the state media to run his family pictures, such as the one in which he was helping his father in a wheelchair. That helped to boost his image as "a family man." Besides, he also didn't block the road when his convoy passed through downtown Shenzhen.
No wonder when he emphasized the importance of the Constitution and the rule of law in December, many interpreted as a signal that he would carry out a broad swath of political and legal reforms and guarantee freedom of the press. That's why observers paid keen attention to how he would handle the protests at the newspaper.
The results were mixed. The provincial government promised that there would be less censorship of the newspaper. But the provincial government's propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, still keeps his post. He was the one who reportedly altered the newspaper's editorial and the newspaper's journalists demanded his removal. So, as the incident was put under the rug, ambiguity remains what was Xi's position on the matter.
This ambiguity works for now. But what will happen in the future is uncertain. As Chinese people have been increasingly exposed to more foreign news and as they are more aware of what's happening abroad, their mindset has been also transforming from that of the "emperor's subjects" in the old feudal society to that of "modern consumers" of an increasingly capitalistic nation.
Right after Google chief Eric Schmidt's visit to North Korea, China's web forums were splashed with the news that the Internet speed in North Korea is far faster than in China. It became one of the hottest news items on the Chinese cyberspace as outraged bloggers stormed Weibo, China's popular microblogging site, demanding the government improve the Internet speed. China's 3G network speed is still not even one tenth the average speeds of Korea and Japan, Chinese media said in December.
As the global trend is increasingly seeing a service-oriented government system, consumers will demand more services from the Communist government for their taxes. And it won't be just limited to Internet speed. More socially conscious people will demand reforms where they see unfit to the present reality, including press freedom and political reform.
For Beijing, reforming and not reforming both carry a risk. If it is too fast, it will destabilize the Communist Party-controlled society. On the other hand, if there is no reform, and if the party suppresses reform demands using old-style physical crackdowns, it will only backfire as people are more willing to protest than before. And the Internet has become a powerful tool by people for such purpose.
Basically, Xi has to show that he safeguards the vested interests of the powerful conservative, while also having to placate reform demands at the grass-roots level and liberalist scholars. Both reformers and conservatives claim that he is on their side. His challenge is to meet the conflicting demands.
Maybe Xi is only using his reform façade as a tenuous overture to drum up popularity in this transitional period and may go back to "business as usual" once he officially assumes the presidency in March. That's what his predecessor Hu Jintao did. When Hu came into power 10 years ago, people expected him to be a reformer. He turned out not to be. People remember that. That precedent may undermine the delicate move Xi is perhaps making now too.
In the end, if Xi also turns out not to be a reformer, while he has been so far giving all the indications in that direction, that's when the danger kicks in. Such a pattern of raising public expectations and letting them down, will eventually reduce the credibility of the Chinese leadership.