Social media made him a star. He is a real estate mogul whose followers believe he speaks truth to power. As a result of his outspoken anti-establishment political posture and popularity, his party wants to shut him down.
He is, of course, “The Cannon.” Never heard of him? He is the man with 37 million social media followers on Sina Weibo – China’s top microblogging site – and the country’s ruling Communist Party just took him on by taking him offline.
The Cannon is Ren Zhiqiang’s nickname and what happens to him next is uncertain, but with such a big and passionate following, it will be difficult to disappear him either quickly or quietly. He is known as The Cannon because of the straight-talk missives he fires at the authorities. Cannon is not alone, however, in finding that speech in China is not free.
Two weeks ago, Premier Xi Jinping, who has refashioned himself in short order as the “core” leader of the Chinese people and has begun the makings of a new cult of personality, declared what most people already understood: China’s media exists solely to serve the party. End of conversation.
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Well, almost. Cannon expressed his opinion that, in fact, the media should instead serve the public, not the party! In liberal democracies, the 21st century is characterized by the cacophony of voices and opinions that flow freely in Western societies and on the Internet. But in places where authoritarian control is still firmly in place, free speech and assembly are seen as subversive and potentially revolutionary acts.
Enter the dragon: Jiang Jian of China’s Cyberspace Administration forced the social media site to delete Cannon’s posts. Jiang said, “Cyberspace is not a lawless field, and no one should use it to spread illegal information.”
Think about that for a moment: What would qualify as “illegal information” in the West? Yelling “fire” in a crowded theater? Divulging troop movements during time of war? The bar for banned speech is set high in the United States and most of America’s allied nations – though Turkey is a notable exception.
What did Cannon say? “When did the people’s government change into the party’s government? Is their money the party’s? … Don’t use taxpayers’ money for things that don’t provide them with services.” That post and Cannon’s voice have been deleted, now existing only in screenshots and the servers of San Francisco’s Internet Archive.
China is flexing its muscle and silencing its critics with more intensity and focused intent. It builds a higher Great Firewall to keep ideas out, kidnaps book publishers across borders, intimidates and arrests peaceful protesters carrying yellow umbrellas, religious practitioners and artists like Ai Weiwei. The rising voices of a burgeoning, bustling Beijing are being tamped to sound a monotonous pro-party thrum.
Free speech must feel very threatening to a leadership that wants only one story told, only one idea promoted, only one party to stay in perpetual power.
Secure nations and leaders are less worried about speech and more concerned with the health and well-being of their people. They look to increase people’s liberties because those freedoms are not threatening to a healthy, self-renewing, innovative and confident system. Silencing a blogger is an admission that the party is feeling fear and insecurity.
Clamping down on dissent is usually the first stage of how an insecure nation reacts to challenges to its ruling structure. The United States and others must work to make sure China feels secure and successful enough within her borders to neither threaten her people nor the world.
In the meantime, America faces its own challenges from a network and social media phenom.
Unlike China, however, the Republican Party will not shut down the Twitter accounts of its front-running real estate mogul – despite the number of people Donald Trump would personally like to shut up or punch out. Like it or not, this is a world of courageous Cannons and bombastic blowhards.
Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.