The ongoing cyber-crackdown in China, as censors now prevent searches regarding the health of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, is a reminder that the Internet is seen by Beijing as a double-edged sword.
By allowing the flow of information, the Internet poses challenges to Chinese authorities, not only in terms of internal messaging and dissent but also as a source of foreign influence that could affect the perceptions of Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy. Yet China cannot afford to reject the Internet, given its multiple applications to daily modern life, including its potential for fostering new industries and high-technology jobs and promoting innovation to reduce Chinese dependence on foreign technology, industries, and companies.
All of this will become more salient over the next year and a half as the Chinese leadership prepares for the transition to the next generation of leaders, headed by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Given the focus on maintaining domestic political control and the importance of economic performance in both promoting the legitimacy of the CCP and minimizing domestic popular unrest, Internet monitoring and censorship will only increase in the coming months.
The sensitivity we are seeing about Jiang Zemin’s health, when Jiang is neither in power nor controversial, indicates the extent to which Chinese leaders worry about what might precipitate domestic unrest. That the name of a former, relatively non-controversial Communist Party Secretary would warrant censorship is an indications of just how sensitive the Chinese political leadership has become to anything remotely resembling regular politics.
Which leaves the observer wondering how Jiang Zemin’s death might affect the transition. Would it help those such as Bo Xilai who are pursuing a revival of Maoist ideology as a means of garnering popular support? Or will it strengthen the hands of Hu Jintao and other party officials who appear more interested in re-concentrating economic power in the hands of the Party? And what does it portend for those who would reinvigorate economic reform started under Deng Xiaoping and continued by Jiang and his fellow Shanghai faction member Zhu Rongji?