Fifth Generation: Who is Liu Yunshan?

This is the third in a series of posts examining the Chinese leaders expected to be named to the Politburo Standing Committee during the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) that kicked off November 8.  Prior installments on Zhang Gaoli here and Zhang Dejiang here.

Liu Yunshun  (刘云山), more than almost any other person in the People’s Republic of China, is responsible for the execution of the so-called ‘Great Firewall’ — that mix of controls that censors access to the Internet within China.

This isn’t a history of the ‘Great Firewall,’ but if you haven’t, go read James Fallows’s essential piece on Internet censorship in China in The Atlantic, and you’ll start to understand why Liu is a natural choice for elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee.  As Fallows writes, there’s really not one ‘Great Firewall,’ but a sophisticated systems of controls.  Internet-based data comes to China via three major choke points: from Japan to Beijing/Tianjin, from Japan to Shanghai, and from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, making it easier for China to censor information coming into the country with a number of technologically-enabled strategies.  Furthermore, although the system is relatively easily circumvented by a proxy server or, to better effect, with a virtual private network (VPN), few Chinese citizens can afford or seem willing to go through the hassle of circumventing the ‘Great Firewall.’

Liu (pictured above), aged 65, has been a Politburo member since 2002, and since 2007, he been the director of the Party’s propaganda department, and so the PRC’s chief official responsible for propaganda and censorship.

He’s vice chair of the Party’s splendidly euphemistic Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilization, which essentially controls the Party’s propaganda department, currently chaired by outgoing Politburo Standing Committee member Li Changchun — Liu is expected to succeed Li upon his ascension to the Politburo Standing Committee as the PRC’s top ‘propaganda czar,’ where he is expected to continue the Party’s strict controls over media and Internet censorship.

Liu’s background is unique in three ways.

First, he’s never been the Party secretary of a major province — although he spent much of his early career in Inner Mongolia, the mineral-rich semi-autonomous province in north-central China, where he began his career as a rural teacher, performed manual labor during the Cultural Revolution, obtained his education, served as a reporter for Xinhua, and eventually became the Party’s propaganda department head in Inner Mongolia, rising to deputy Party secretary in Inner Mongolia before being transferred to Beijing, where he’s spent the rest of his career in the Party’s propaganda department.

Second, he’s not a ‘princeling’ like either the now-disgraced Bo Xilai or the expected new ‘paramount leader’ of China, Xi Jinping (习近平).  Instead, he’s a tuanpai — his career began through the Party’s youth league (the CCYL).

Third, he’s no protégé of former president Jiang Zemin (江泽民), but rather more of a protégé of outgoing president Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), who served as the head of the CCYL in the early and mid 1980s. That doesn’t mean that Liu, however, is a liberal; recall that Hu’s regime has been marked by an entrenchment on censorship and media and Internet freedom issues.

In his book on current Chinese affairs, How China’s Leaders Think, Robert Lawrence Kuhn notes that under Liu’s leadership, China’s entertainment and cultural industries have improved, noting that Liu has unleashed more marketization and competition into the media industry, resulting in more creativity in Chinese television, film and publishing — as well as on the Internet and in media.  To some extent, that’s true — mainland Chinese cinema has started to garner more attention in a field long dominated by Taiwan (e.g. Ang Lee) and Hong Kong (e.g. Wong Kar-wai and John Woo).

But he also quotes an interview with Liu that seems fairly instructive as to Liu’s worldview on the Internet:

There should be order on the Internet; disorder would thwart Internet growth…. [China’s] laws and regulations are not there to limit the Internet, but to facilitate its development.  As long as you act within the legal framework, you are totally free on the Internet — you have freedom on speech.

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