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Date Posted: 21:10 15/12/2004

Hu's the boss

The foreign press speculates on the recent crackdowns

COULD IT be that the new leadership have turned out to be even more hardline than the last lot? Some believe so. 'Ever since Hu Jintao came into power, the government has become more strict and more repressive,'' Liu Qing, the president of New York-based Human Rights in China, said this week. 'Prison sentences for people questioning the government have become much longer.''

Indeed, on the orders of the Ministry of Propaganda, newspapers have apparently been forced to stop covering the remarks of certain 'public intellectuals', accused in an editorial by the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily of driving a wedge between the government and the masses. A number of well-known writers and rebels have also been arrested, and at least two controversial newspaper editors have been replaced with more compliant figures.

Two prominent critics of the government, Yu Jie and Liu Xiaobo, were arrested this week. They were released after eight hours of questioning. Before the incident, Liu, the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, said in an interview with Asia Weekly that while a blacklist of prominent intellectuals had certainly been issued, some media were choosing to ignore it. That might explain the recent moves to replace senior officials at a number of newspapers.

Li Xuequan, the editor in chief of China Youth Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ostensibly Hu-supporting Communist Youth League, was asked to resign earlier this month, according to a report in the South China Morning Post this week. China Youth Daily has been behind a wave of critical reporting recently, particularly in the area of environmental protection. The South China Morning Post also notes that a new weekly, the Xin Zhou Bao, has been taken off the newsstands after just two months. Its editor-in-chief has now been replaced, but some doubt whether the paper will ever be published again.

Many were holding out a great deal of hope for the new government of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, imagining them to be at the forefront of a new wave of political reforms. After all, the protection of human rights has been enshrined in the constitution for the first time and a number of other important changes to the system have been made. Favourable noises about overhauling the petition system, or the growing discussions about public tribunals and environmental impact assessments, gave grounds for optimism.

Joseph Kahn in the New York Times cites political analysts who claim that President Hu sought from the beginning to impose more discipline on the errant media industry. There are signs, says Kahn, that Hu has a 'less permissive style' than his predecessor.

A more generous interpretation might be that Hu Jintao is seeking to outflank conservative opponents in order to avoid a repetition of the events that led up to the crackdown on Tian'anmen Square in 1989, in which Premier Wen Jiabao was intimately involved. Rome wasn't built a day, or, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, you cannot reach Heaven in a single bound.

Reports earlier in the year suggested that a power struggle between Hu and Jiang was leading Hu towards more confrontational positions on the issues of Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many observers assumed that the power struggle would come to an end once Jiang resigned, but that was always unlikely. More unlikely still was the idea that Hu was in the position to become 'China's Gorbachev' in the first place.

Many imagined that they could be a little more outspoken once Jiang Zemin resigned, but with a precarious power base, Hu Jintao may be trying to err on the side of caution. The Communist Party, like every other party, is organized around a number of taboos and shibboleths, making reform all the more difficult. Even if a leader was of a mind to allow Taiwanese independence or hold free elections, he would never be in a position even to reveal his stance, let alone implement it. The thaw, it seems, has not yet arrived.

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