Today the pro-Mao (and by extension pro-Bo Xilai) site Utopia announced it would be closed for a month. At the risk of over simplification, this would be like Mitt Romney shutting down Tea Party websites. While one of my co-workers seemed to think that this was “good news,” it’s not the victory for reformers that some might be tempted to claim it is. Too often observers make the mistake of assuming that China is either heading to the left (which in China is the pro-Mao camp) or to the right (reformers), but things are rarely that simple.
As other observers have noted, if a site on the right had ventured as far from the permissible realm as Utopia had gone to the left, people would already have been arrested. The message on the site mentioned charges that have resulted in 10+ year sentences for activists on the right, including violating the constitution and attacking state leaders. The right has certainly taken a blow with the ousting of Bo Xilai, but the militarism and nationalism remains. People’s Daily ran two articles about martyrs of the Communist Revolution over the Qingming holiday, a subject that is actually rarely discussed in the paper (1 and 2). It seems far too soon say that pro-Mao ideology has fallen completely out of favor.
Moreover, the closure of Utopia is in no way a victory for those opposed to the policies of Bo Xilai and the red ideology he professed belief in, instead it fits neatly within the tactics of the Maoist left (a textbook example of irony). I would argue that this is not a shift toward reform, nor is it a step back to the days of the Cultural Revolution, instead it shows China continuing in a third direction – the one that speaks of reform while crushing opposition. The direction that upholds the Party as an infallible and indispensable institution. The kind of power that seeks to contain conversations and ideas within a narrow scope that can be efficiently monitored, where the policies of the past can neither be praised nor condemned.
Those on the right (reform minded) know that the little space that had existed to discuss politics, which was abused in the past few weeks, is an incredibly precious commodity that may disappear all together in the wake of the rumors. The flurry of articles published in Party-backed newspapers condemning such discussions as dangerous should be of great concern to those on both sides. As my co-worker said with a laugh, “They say one month now, but maybe it’s closed forever.” While there is no way of knowing at the moment whether or not she’s right, the gov’t has preferred to soften bad news with limited time frames in the past to avoid negative reactions.
In light of the recent restrictions placed on micro-blogging sites, it seems that we are now experiencing the backlash for spreading rumors, and the gov’t is signaling that unless netizens restrict themselves, more limits will be placed on them. It will be interesting to watch and see what happens next – will the netizens retreat as the Party hopes or will they regroup? Considering the continuing discussions on Weibo, even after the arrest of several users, I’d bet on the latter.