China

Rare act of dissent at China's annual parliament

  • 15 March 2016
  • From the section China
Media captionJiang Hong: 'If a society only listens to one voice, mistakes can be made'

After 11 days of interminable speeches, followed by ritualistic voting to approve everything put before it, China's annual parliamentary gathering will, once again, leave little worthy of note in its wake.

That is precisely the intention of course because it is not meant to hold power to account.

That is kept tightly in the hands of the ruling Communist Party, and the key policies have long been decided in advance.

Nonetheless, every year, the meetings do provide an occasional glimpse of something meaningful for those watching closely.

Here then are two of them for 2016; the first, a rare act of dissent that could not be stifled and the second, paradoxically, an all-too-common act of obeisance that was mysteriously hidden from view.

Much has already been written about Jiang Hong.

As thousands of his fellow delegates began arriving in Beijing two weeks ago, with their rubber stamps at the ready, Mr Jiang had different ideas.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There is no shortage of security in Beijing, especially around the Tiananmen square area
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Tribute songs to Xi Jinping (centre) have become something of a musical genre in their own right

He had already given an interview to a Chinese online current affairs magazine, Caixin, suggesting that delegates should be free to speak their own minds, rather than be compelled blithely to follow the will of the party.

Government censors promptly deleted that interview, a clear demonstration that delegates are not free to do anything of the sort.

Undeterred, Mr Jiang proceeded to give another interview to the same magazine in which he described the censorship as "terrible and bewildering".

Published along with a daring photo of a mouth gagged with masking tape, that follow-up article was deleted too.

Hurried away

But still far from cowed, Mr Jiang agreed to a BBC interview, conducted inside the meeting hall close to Tiananmen Square.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption China's annual parliament is not always quite so rigid as appearances suggest
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Security has been tight for this year's annual parliamentary gathering
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The curtain has been partially lifted on hidden tensions

"If a society only listens to one voice, then mistakes can be made," he told us.

"A good way to prevent this from happening is to let everyone speak up, to give us the whole picture."

"I feel there's been an increase in things being deleted online - articles and blogs and posts on Wechat," he continued.

"This has made people worried about expressing their opinions."

Before we could finish our interview, Jiang Hong was hurried away by an official who insisted that we would make him late for his meeting - something other media outlets have experienced amid reports that delegates have been advised against impromptu discussions with the foreign media.

But Mr Jiang's determined insistence on exercising his right to free speech illustrates how China's annual parliament is not always quite so rigid and compliant as it first seems.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There is growing disquiet over the recent tightening of the restrictions on freedom of expression
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Chinese economy has been under-performing in recent months

For the few who choose to use the opportunity, with the media access and at least the pretence of openness, it offers a precious moment in which they can push the boundaries a bit and, in doing so, highlight the debates that are often rumoured to be raging inside the ruling elite.

And Mr Jiang has done exactly that.

The response to his comments suggests that there is growing disquiet over the recent tightening of the restrictions on freedom of expression, with even one state-run newspaper weighing in with an old saying that "a thousand yes men cannot compare with one person who criticises frankly".

Lavish production

And so to our second moment at this year's event, one that has also lifted the curtain somewhat on the hidden tensions behind the scenes.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Even critics like Jiang Hong acknowledge that what is happening in China today is a lot better than what happened during Mao's Cultural Revolution
Image copyright AP
Image caption Power in China is kept tightly in the hands of the ruling Communist Party, and key policies have long been decided in advance

It came inside the Great Hall of the People as China's President Xi Jinping attended a sideline meeting of the Province of Hunan Communist Party Committee.

The Provincial Party Secretary Xu Shousheng is in mid-flow when his speech takes an unexpected change of tack.

"Before Chinese New Year," he says to President Xi, "a song by the title 'I don't know how to address you' went viral online in Hunan."

The lavish production, reportedly commissioned by the Hunan government, tells the story of one of Xi Jinping's visits to the Hunan countryside, and Mr Xu was keen to sing its praises.

"It vividly reflects [your] devotion to the poverty-stricken village of Shibadong," he tells him.

Mr Xi can be seen smiling and nodding slightly, although soon after video links of the exchange, along with references to the viral song being raised at the meeting, were seemingly deleted from the internet, with the links returning instead the familiar error message for removed content.

At a time when the main message of this year's parliament was meant to be the Communist Party's efforts to boost a flagging economy, with the looming threat of mass industrial layoffs, having the nation's top brass compose songs to each other and then crow about them, probably does not seem like the best exercise in public relations.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The fringes of China's parliamentary set pieces are sometimes all observers have to go on when trying to assess what is happening within the corridors of power

Nonetheless, tribute songs to Xi Jinping have become something of a musical genre in their own right in recent years, leading to speculation that such public displays of devotion are being encouraged as part of a growing cult of personality around him.

While spontaneous songs written and sung by grass roots performers - of which there are many - are one thing, for such tributes to be commissioned by senior party officials is altogether different.

Along with the crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech, as well as an increasingly ideological tone, some observers worry that Chinese politics is now taking a more authoritarian direction of the kind not seen since the days of Chairman Mao.

And with the normal political process so opaque and closed, the things we can glimpse on the edges of China's parliamentary set pieces are sometimes all we have to go on in trying to assess the truth.

The last word, perhaps, should go to Jiang Hong, the censored but still determined delegate.

"What's happening now is a lot better than what happened during the Cultural Revolution," he tells us.

"However, in terms of citizens' freedom of expression, there are still obstacles. At least I can still express my thoughts; I can voice my opinion within the boundaries of this meeting.

"But what really upsets me is that I can't express my opinion to the public. In this aspect, there's still a lot of improvement needed in our country. "

More on this story