The Tocqueville paradox
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There were many remarkable aspects to this story. In a one-party state, defying ruling elites who seldom hesitate to put dissidents behind bars certainly carries enormous personal risk. But apparently, fear has lost its potency to deter outraged journalists from challenging the censors in Guangdong. In addition, it is conventional wisdom that autocracies maintain their rule mainly by preventing disparate social forces from coalescing behind a common political cause. However, this time, the defiant journalists immediately received moral and political support from a diverse range of people, most notably, prominent private businessmen, celebrity actresses, bloggers, and writers. These public figures, who have tens of millions of followers on the Chinese twitter, rallied behind the journalists with the help of social media. The ensuing focus of the international media and China's vibrant online community put enormous pressure on China's new leadership to handle the incident with greater care and more flexibility.
The political implications of the protest over censorship are both profound and worrying.
On the one hand, it is clear that there are, in Chinese society, powerful pent-up frustrations with one-party rule, in particular with its restrictions on civil liberties. Those who find one-party rule increasingly illegitimate and unbearable will seek every opportunity to show their defiance. Ironically, the newly installed Chinese leadership has created such an opportunity.
Since he became the CPC's new chief last November, Xi Jinping has worked very hard to project a progressive and reformist public image. Some of the policy initiatives his government has announced, such as reforming the household registration system that effectively keeps rural migrants in second-class citizenship status and the abusive administrative detention system that allows local officials to lock up protesters and dissidents for up to three years without a judicial process, are intended to burnish his credentials as a bold and forward-looking leader.
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