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Delegates walk out after a plenary session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing on Thursday. The group advises the National People's Congress, China's legislature. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
Delegates walk out after a plenary session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing on Thursday. The group advises the National People's Congress, China's legislature. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Under Xi Jinping, China is increasingly silencing sources of dissent Add to ...

For a decade now, Jiang Hong has travelled to Beijing in early spring to call for a different China, one where free speech can flourish and government opens its books to its people.

But this year is almost certainly his last. Voices like his have become less welcome in a country that has sought to mute those advocating for change.

“There has been very little progress in the past 10 years,” he said. “Personally speaking, I get the feeling that things are even changing in the opposite direction of what we expected.”

For most of the year, Prof. Jiang teaches at the Shanghai University of Finance. But he is also a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the 2,000-person advisory board to the central government that comes together for meetings during China’s annual legislative session, which is now under way.

For Prof. Jiang and others – including artists, scientists and business leaders – the sessions have traditionally provided a unique venue, where they could more openly make appeals that would not normally be allowed in the blanched pages of the state press.

“The purpose of these institutions historically has been to provide a way for people to reveal their grievances to the government,” said Rory Truex, an expert in Chinese politics at Princeton University, whose book Representation Within Bounds examines China’s legislative process.

“It’s a way for the government to learn something about the population, and for the population to feel that they’re being represented in some way.”

Now, however, even that space is growing smaller, as China under President Xi Jinping steers a more authoritarian course that has sought to root out Western influence, quiet dissent and reassert the primacy of Communist Party leadership.

The changes have grown obvious in the increasingly bland content of entertainment, the closing of news outlets and the imprisonment of human-rights critics, some of whom have provided detailed accounts of their torturous mistreatment in detention.

The tighter environment has extended to the joint “two sessions” meetings of the CPPCC and National People’s Congress, which has over the history of Communist China, acted “as a barometer of what was happening in the broader society,” said Kevin O’Brien, a professor of Asian studies at University of California, Berkeley. His 1990 book, Reform Without Liberalization, traces the history of the National People’s Congress until 1989.

In the tumult of the 1960s, the legislative meetings were cancelled entirely; in the 1980s, as China began to open to the world and consider new ways of running the country, the legislative sessions became a forum for discussion of real reforms – before that ended when soldiers opened fire on students around Tiananmen Square.

“It does move with the political winds,” said Prof. O’Brien.

“If you’re seeing a lack of dissent, it probably means they’re trying to circle all the wagons.”

The push to do so has been explicit.

National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang this week called on delegates to more closely unite around the top leadership of the Communist Party “with Xi Jinping as the core.”

The message appears to have been effective, with proposals from lawmakers this year taking on a patriotic fervour, such as eliminating English from national college tests and more than doubling holiday time at Lunar New Year.

Quiet has descended even among artist and entertainer members of the CPPCC who once had a freer hand to complain.

In 2014, filmmaker Feng Xiaogang openly criticized China’s strict censorship of films and called for a “big loosening,” saying: “Don’t make directors tremble with fear every day like [they’re] walking on thin ice.” Actor Jackie Chan warned that interference from censors was damaging Chinese cinema.

In 2016, screenwriter Gao Mantang described having to seek authorization from six government departments – including the National Energy Administration and the Ministry of Land and Resources – to produce a single show. “It’s getting increasingly hard,” actor and producer Zhang Guoli said during a CPPCC arts and literature panel last year.

At a similar panel this year, no one, including Jackie Chan, spoke a word against the government.

“Chinese culture is the only civilization in the world that has continued unbroken,” said Hai Xia, a state television presenter. He then went on to cite President Xi: “if we abandon tradition, we will abandon our roots, which is like severing our own spiritual lifeline.”

As recently as 2015, Chinese state media published articles urging people like Prof. Jiang not to be “three-hand delegates,” the kind of lazy and unquestioning person who merely shakes hands and applauds.

The idea is that “delegates should not come to Beijing to merely listen to instructions in conferences, but to supervise the government,” Prof. Jiang said. “In fact, it raised the bar to quite a reasonable level for delegates.”

This year, when delegates passed around old links to such articles – hosted on the websites of China’s chief propaganda news organs – they were surprised to find them unavailable. Some were later made accessible again, but to Prof. Jiang it was an unmistakable sign that even those nominally charged with delivering suggestions to government are no longer welcome to do so.

In early January, for example, Deng Xiangchao, a professor in the art institute at Shandong Jianzhu University, was fired for making “erroneous remarks” about Mao Zedong. Had Mao “died in 1945, China would have seen six million fewer killed in war,” Prof. Deng wrote.

Prof. Deng had been a member of his local Shandong provincial CPPCC, but his membership was quickly cancelled.

“It is now obvious that when some people have different opinions and complaints, they are severely punished,” Prof. Jiang said.

Last year, local media published his own complaints, including a comment that “the rights to speak freely must be protected.” This year, none dared and his posts to social media were quickly expunged.

Prof. Jiang has decided he’s done as a government adviser. “This is the last year of my term. Next year, I won’t come,” he said. Asked what he plans to do instead, he said: “enjoy life.”

With a report from Yu Mei

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