One key characteristic of Xi Jinping’s “New Era” has been the progressive elimination of all forms of ideological variance within the Party. Growing centralization of Party power has come with a pronounced narrowing of the discourse spectrum. Everyone must converge at the center — or remain silent.
Now comes the news, not altogether surprising, that Utopia, the leftist website espousing that “our only firm belief is in Mao Zedong Thought,” could be shuttered indefinitely.
Chinese-language media outside mainland China reported over the weekend that Utopia‘s website was no longer available, following the blocking on May 19 of its public account on the popular WeChat platform. Apple Daily cited speculation that one of the key issues was the need to maintain the central position of Xi Jinping’s ideological discourse — an argument that seems at least partly supported by China Media Project’s recent report on April 2018 discourse in the People’s Daily newspaper, which found legacy terms associated with Xi Jinping’s predecessors disappearing almost entirely.
Other sources speculated that Utopia‘s shutdown was a pre-emptive move by the authorities to neutralize any negative fallout from concessions China might make in the midst of trade negotiations with the United States. The fear, according to one commentator cited by Radio Free Asia, was that Utopia, a site that often harbors extreme nationalist views, might openly characterize Chinese concessions as an “act of treason” (卖国行动), inviting broader criticism from its readership. At the time of the blocking of its WeChat public account, Utopia had an estimated 130,000 followers on the platform.
Utopia has often taken up extreme positions that set it at odds with the Party’s mainstream. After North Korea said in February 2013 that it had successfully tested a miniaturized nuclear device, a move that upset China’s government and prompted rare criticism of North Korea in state-run media, the Utopia website ran a disaccording message of praise — even tossing in a propaganda term, “positive energy,” introduced by Xi Jinping not long before: “For the people of North Korea to conduct a successful test of an advanced nuclear weapon at this time is a contribution to peace in Northeast Asia,” it wrote. “It increases positive energy on the Korean Peninsula, and it adds more positive factors to the future of North Korea.”
Utopia and North Korea were joined in the news headlines in April when it emerged that 32 Chinese tourists killed in a bus crash on the Reunification Highway south of Pyongyang were visiting North Korea on a tour organized by Spark Travel, a company affiliated with Utopia. The website’s editor-in-chief, Diao Weiming (刁伟铭), was confirmed to have died in the crash.
Utopia has weathered temporary shutdowns in the past. The website was handed a one-month suspension in April 2012 and ordered to undergo rectification. The order, coming at the time from the State Council Information Office, reportedly resulted from writings seen as indirectly criticizing the state leaders and “improperly discussing” (妄议) the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which at that time was several months away.
In other respects, on other issues, Utopia has been more in line with the views of the leadership. The site had long defined itself in critical opposition to Yanhuang Chunqiu (炎黄春秋), a respected journal of history and politics that frequently ran scholarship from more liberal Chinese intellectuals. The Utopia website, in fact, featured a regular special topic, or zhuanti (专题), on Yanhuang Chunqiu, a column reserved for fulsome rebuttals of the latest outrages committed by the journal — such as well-supported scholarship by historian and former China Media Project fellow Hong Zhenkuai (洪振快) that questioned the historical truth of a Communist Party myth called the “Five Heroes of Langya Mountain.”
Yanhuang Chunqiu has been effectively silenced as a source of liberal ideas within the Party since its hostile takeover by authorities almost two years ago.
Utopia routinely referred to the liberal journal disparagingly as “the great camp of historical nihilism” (历史虚无主义的大本营). In the context of Chinese Communist Party discourse, “historical nihilism” refers to any act or attitude of denying the Party’s politically convenient view of historical truth, however unsubstantiated. Utopia would seem, in this respect, to be in line with the objectives of the Party under Xi Jinping, which has prioritized the fight against “historical nihilism,” even listing it as number six on its roster of banned ideas laid out in the so-called Document No. 9 back in 2013.
But the fate of Utopia over the past week is a potent illustration of how determined the Party leadership now is to enforce and maintain ideological unity around the “core” figure of Xi Jinping. It is not acceptable for a liberal Party journal on the right to talk honestly about history and advocate constitutionalism as a means of solving China’s problems. Nor is it acceptable for a website on the extreme left to talk as though the way forward is a return to the ideology of Mao.
Right or left, all must come together at “the core.”