On 19 February, China president Xi Jinping visited the China Communist Party's principal media outlets: CCTV, the Xinhua news agency and the People’s Daily newspaper. The appearance by Xi, who clearly includes supreme-editor-in-chief among his many titles, reminded staff who was 'the big daddy', and what their role was, saying:' The fundamental issue of the Party’s media work is to strictly adhere to the Party’s leadership'. 

Ren Zhiqiang, a retired property tycoon and social media star with more than 37 million followers on Weibo, took issue with Xi’s direction, asking, via Weibo 'since when did the people’s government become the party’s government? Does the money they spend come from party fees?’

Ren, a well-connected former soldier and self-professed loyal party member used managerial terms to explain how Xi’s logic was flawed. 'The board of directors is entrusted by shareholders to manage and run a company. But the company belongs to the shareholders; it does not belong to the board of directors. This is common knowledge,' he said. 

Ren’s comments immediately came under fire from party media outlets. Within days, the government internet censor decided to shut down Ren’s account on Weibo, one of the most popular social media platforms in China.

The muzzling of Ren is only the latest episodes of a worrying trend in China; the squashing of critical comment. We are not talking about meddlesome foreign journalists here, or human rights advocates. This is repression directed at those who could be described as Xi's 'loyal opposition', people such as Ren, drawn from policy, business and academic elites that support the party but would like more openness and change in China.

These reformists have been under attack since Xi became president two years ago. Within two months of coming into power, party censors in the prosperous Guangdong province brazenly changed Southern Weekend’s 2013 New Year’s editorial into sycophantic pro-party propaganda. The paper is known for its progressive editorial stance and high impact investigative journalism. Rubbing salt into the wound, the censors misspelt some characters in the changed editorial. Journalists staged a protest and others also voiced their support. However, the party soon cracked down on the dissent and forced reporters back to their desks.

In 2015, the government arrested a high profile liberal journalist, Shen Hao, who was the editor in chief of the 21st Century Business Herald on extortion charges. The Washington Post described Shen as 'inspiration to a generation of Chinese journalists, a writer whose belief in the power of truth symbolised an era of optimism and idealism in the profession.' As the article goes on to say, that era of optimism is barely a memory now.

Xi seems far more hard line than his predecessors when it comes to enforcing total party control over the media, including social media platforms such as Weibo and Wechat. Local officials are taking cues from Beijing and cracking down on ‘trouble-making' journalists. Many young Chinese journalists are leaving the industry because of the repressive environment. It's interesting to note that party officials have begun to conspicuously refer to Xi as 'core leader'. Peter the Great and Julius Caesar both liked to award themselves lavish titles after significant victories. Xi’s recent triumph appears to be the silencing of his critics.

Under the imperial presidency of Xi, a cult of personality is being nourished. He has concentrated political power in his own hands at the expense of collective leadership. Party officials and members have been asked to pledge personal fealty to Xi, something reminiscent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. 

This cult of personality, the crackdown on dissent, and the relentless attack on critical foreign media are all signs of a paranoid government looking inward. Together they make a jarring contrast to the party’s professed goals of reform and more intimate engagement with the international community.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user thierry ehrmann