Written by Jessica C. Teets.

When the film Under the Dome (穹顶之下), a documentary concerning air pollution, was released online on 28 February 2015, it was viewed 150 million times over a few days.  Although it illustrated the Chinese government’s failure to enforce regulations on pollution, the film was not immediately censored. In fact, the People’s Daily reposted the film and an interview with the producer Chai Jing. The recently-appointed minister for environmental protection, Chen Jining, praised the film comparing its significance to Silent Spring, the 1962 book by the American environmentalist Rachel Carson. The film was posted online a week before the meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (两会), and in his opening address to the NPC on 5 March 2015, Premier Li Keqiang referenced the film by saying “environmental pollution is a blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts … We must fight it with all our might.” However, within a week, the Communist Party’s publicity department ordered the film to be removed from Chinese websites after being viewed more than 200 million times. How should we understand this contradictory response of publicly praising the documentary and then censoring it?

One prevalent argument is that it is an example of factional politics and  Xi Jinping’s power consolidation. Although cases of factional infighting are not rare, this instance is being described as evidence of something new – Xi Jinping’s rapid and seemingly total consolidation of power. Perhaps more importantly, it is also seen as part of a broader direction on the part of the new Xi administration, of strengthening the Party and suppressing civil society and other forms of social participation. Censoring the documentary provides evidence of Xi Jinping pushing aside both Minister Chen and Li Keqiang to forestall the social mobilization Chai Jing calls for in the film when she says “It’s tens of millions of ordinary people, one day they say ‘no.’ I’m not satisfied. I don’t want to wait. I’m not going to shirk the responsibility. I’m going to stand up and do something. I’m going to do it right now. At this moment. At this place.”

However, is this the right way to view censorship of Under the Dome? Using the parsimony principle of Occam’s Razor, the most simple and accurate answer is that this is not evidence of factional warfare between Xi and Li to consolidate political power and stifle the space for social action in China, but rather simply a response based on the ongoing concerns of the CCP about social stability. Online censorship has been increasingly focusing not on the content but rather the potential virality. Any online content that garners as many views and downloads as Chai Jing’s documentary did in such a short time, could be a target of censorship. Although there is likely a diversity of opinions about environmental regulations between officials like Li Keqiang, Chen Jining and Xi Jinping, the government’s contradictory response to the film should be seen as a response to the virality of the film in the context of the uncertain political environment under Xi Jinping. In fact, the decision to censor the film most likely does not demonstrate Xi’s desire for political control, but more uncertainty on the part of government officials with the Xi administration’s political direction. As has long been the safest course of action for cadres in China, when uncertain, go conservative.

We need to be cautious in interpreting censorship and other “stability maintenance” actions as a coordinated policy shift directed from the top, i.e. Xi Jinping. The problem with the political environment is not so much that it is constrained, because we have seen that before, and civil society groups have shown remarkable resilience in adapting to all sorts of environments, but rather that the political environment is dynamic and unknown. As Xi Jinping is attempting to reposition the CCP as the supervisor of all (or at least the most important) economic, political, and social activities rather than playing the ad hoc-behind the scenes role that it seemed to play under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, officials across the party-state seem to be trying to navigate without knowing the policy direction or boundaries. For many cadres, the safe decision is “stability maintenance” whether that means censorship or detaining activists. It is unclear if the censorship of Chai Jing’s film or the jailing of feminist protesters in Beijing last month are part of a coordinated effort ordered by Xi Jinping directly, or rather an attempt by other cadres to stay within unknown and shifting political boundaries by being overly cautious. This response is definitely creating a more constrained political environment for everyone, including civil society, but it is as yet unclear to me that this is the “direction” of the Xi administration or simply a period of transition before everyone understands what the “direction” will be (including Xi himself).

In answer to the question of does the contradictory response of the government to Chai Jing’s film against a backdrop of activist arrests tell us anything about space for civil society in China, I would argue that this space is much the same under Xi as it was under Hu. Despite Xi’s desire for a strong leadership role for the party, there does not necessarily appear to be less space for action under party “guidance” in the future. There will need to be a period of adaptation once Xi has indicated his position, but civil society, especially environmental groups and activists, have been really successful in adapting to political constraints. Xi has continued many of the policies initiated by Hu Jintao’s administration, such as requiring the registration of international civil society groups and simplifying registration and fundraising for domestic groups. Under Hu’s leadership, Yunnan piloted the first experimental policy to register international groups, and required that the groups registered with the relevant Civil Affairs agency and also received approval from the relevant Foreign Affairs agency before funding or collaborating with any domestic groups. In Yunnan, this has not led to an appreciable decline in the activities of international groups, although has reduced funding available to smaller domestic groups. The Ministry of Civil Affairs under Hu’s leadership also initiated direct registration policies and an expanded role for charities with the new charity law.

China is an authoritarian country in the midst of leadership transition, and the uncertainty and conservatism we are seeing are mostly in response to this political situation, and it is unclear if there is anything more purposeful to these actions. The best way to understand the relationship between civil society and the party-state in China is one of “consultation authoritarianism” where civil society is encouraged to consult with the government on policy issues and to be active in society, but all under the “guidance” of an authoritarian government that has developed a sophisticated toolkit of control mechanisms to manage these social organizations. In this way, I see more continuity than change between the Hu and Xi administrations.

However, the difference that I see between the Hu and Xi administrations is that the proposed international civil society registration regulations require these groups to register under the dual management system that is being phased out for domestic groups and replaced by direct registration. This proposed regulation would require that international groups register with both a government agency as a sponsoring or supervisory agency, and that instead of registering with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the groups would register with the Ministry of Public Security. The role for Public Security if this regulation is adopted would be a departure from Hu’s policies regarding civil society, but not the concept of registering international groups and tying them more closely to government agencies. Nevertheless, at this early stage in Xi’s administration, I do not see indications that regulation of civil society in China will turn in a radical direction, although it is important to wait to see the ultimate policy direction taken under Xi’s leadership, especially how international civil society groups will be registered and if the proposed regulatory changes for domestic groups are continued. If the proposed legislation to make registration and fundraising easier for domestic groups is adopted, and the supervision of international groups functions in similar ways to the experience in Yunnan, then I would view the Xi administration as more of a continuation of the Hu administration, at least in the realm of civil society. In short, despite Xi Jinping’s charisma and active attempts to “rejuvenate” Party supervision, I see more continuity and less change from the Hu Jintao era.

Jessica C. Teets is Assistant Professor at Middlebury College. She is the author of Civil Society Under Authoritarianism: The China Model (CUP, 2014). Image Credit: CC by Kevin Dooley/Flickr.