By Kathrin Hille in Beijing
More than 30m Chinese were in for a surprise on Monday: the country’s most-followed Twitter-like microblog quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn. “One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” wrote the celebrity actress Yao Chen.
Ms Yao sent the former Soviet dissident’s words with the logo of Southern Weekend, the paper respected as the vanguard of Chinese investigative journalism and for its probing stories but now involved in a rare open fight with censors.
Her post marks a warning to China’s new leadershipunder Xi Jinping, the new Communist party chief who took over from Hu Jintao in November: The country Mr Xi is expected to rule for the next decade wants more than just steadily increasing income.
China’s citizens increasingly want political rights, especially the young, affluent and well-educated. The frustration of a few journalists quickly snowballed into a public outcry over the general lack of freedom of speech.
That is no coincidence. Over the past year, pressure both in and outside the Communist party has been building for political reform.
Since Mr Xi took office, intellectuals have issued a string of appeals, the latest an open letter drafted by a Peking University professor which warned of violent revolution unless the leadership heeded the calls for change.
Mr Xi has sent some signals. At the end of last year, state media went to great lengths to stress that he had ordered meals on trips to be simple, with no more than four courses and one soup, and no wine – a clear sign that the new leadership is aware of the widespread disgust at official corruption.
The new party chief has also tried to make his mark on propaganda. Some of his speeches have been simpler, more powerful and human and less loaded with the party’s arcane slogans than those of his predecessor.
He chose to make his first two trips to Shenzhen, the export manufacturing hub, and an impoverished village in Northern China, trying to show that he is serious about reviving economic reform and wants to address the needs of the country’s poorest at the same time.
But while these moves present Mr Xi as a man of the people, someone who can be trusted and gets things done – something many Chinese have greeted with approval – that may no longer be enough.
On Monday, hundreds of young men and women took up the cause of the Southern Weekend journalists to make a broader point about civil rights and send their own message to Mr Xi.
One post on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter equivalent, carried a photo of a dozen men and women wearing masks resembling those of the emblem of the hacker group Anonymous and holding posters with Chinese characters that read, in a clear reference to Mr Xi’s agenda: “Four courses and a soup are not real reform. Only press freedom is real reform.”
Responding to such expectations will be much more difficult for Mr Xi. A first signal of a potential political reform step emerged on Monday when state media said the party intended to “push ahead with reform of the re-education through labour system” this year.
“Xi Jinping will definitely do something about it – the political cost is very small and the benefits immediate,” says Nicholas Becquelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To assert his power, he is bound to throw a few bones to liberal circles in China.”
Abolishing China’s system of administrative detentions is seen as one of the most important tasks in moving the country closer to the rule of law. More than 160,000 are imprisoned in a network of more than 200 labour camps, where they were sent without trial.
But legal experts fear that the “reform” might be no more than cosmetic. “I expect that a law will be passed, but I don’t think things will change in practice,” says Li Fangping, a lawyer who has been campaigning for the abolition of the labour camps.
Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi in Beijing