In preparation for the Chinese Communist Party’s power reshuffle during the 19th Party Congress this fall, Chinese president Xi Jinping has begun to install many of his protégés and allies in local party leadership positions in anticipation of receiving a second term. But with China’s economic growth slowing, the most pressing question leading up to the congress is whether Xi will use the next five years to finally deliver on the economic reforms he has long promised. Among them: letting market forces play a decisive role in resource allocation and transforming China into a consumption-driven economy.
Although China’s opaque political system makes it difficult to assess its leadership’s true intentions, one unlikely indicator can reveal a great deal about how the Communist Party will approach economic reform: the level of government censorship.
In post-Mao China, censorship of the press has become a way to mask bad economic policies, especially when the government’s legitimacy leans heavily on boosting growth. Censorship has been less pervasive, for example, when the leadership enacted reforms that led to economic prosperity. It is only when such progress stall that the regime opts to control the media in order to curb public discontent.
During the 1997 Party Congress, which granted a second term to former President Jiang Zemin, Jiang announced a policy that would become one of the most transformative of China’s pro-market reforms: the large-scale privatization of state-owned enterprises. That year also marked the launch of Southern Metropolis Daily, the first of several influential, state-owned newspapers known for their relatively independent journalism. Over the course of the next decade or so, the paper’s reporting was at times so pro-reform and aggressive that it ran afoul of the government’s directives. When Beijing was concealing the extent of the 2002 SARS epidemic, for example, the Daily reported on an outbreak in its hometown of Guangzhou. At the time, the Chinese government, which was transitioning between the administrations of Jiang and Hu,
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