China’s censors have restricted the spread online of a personal essay written by former premier Wen Jiabao about his late mother that some dissidents said could be construed as criticism of President Xi Jinping’s leadership.
The essay, titled “My Mother”, was initially published by a Macau newspaper in a series of instalments around the tomb-sweeping festival this month. The essay was reposted by mainstream Chinese media outlets at the weekend but has since disappeared from those websites.
Censorship of such a senior leader would have involved high-level officials and reflects deep-seated anxiety in the Communist party about any threat to Xi’s image, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the University of California.
Popular internet memes that jokingly venerate Jiang Zemin, the former president, have also been scrubbed in recent years.
Wen’s essay began spreading on WeChat, the country’s dominant social-messaging platform, after several independent bloggers reposted it. Those versions, while still accessible, have been blocked from being shared further.
“This essay violates WeChat’s public account platform rules, and has been banned from being shared,” a pop-up warning reads when users attempt to share the article.
While China’s tech companies employ thousands of in-house censors who often make decisions without receiving direct orders from the government, Wen’s seniority meant that the decision to censor must have come from an advanced level within the Chinese Communist party, said Xiao.
“For highly political figures like Wen Jiabao, any decision about his words or actions not only has to come from the central propaganda department, it may come from even higher up, such as the central office,” said Xiao, referring to the main body for internal party affairs.
“It is Xi Jinping's own insecurity about his authority and image within Chinese society that leads to such censorship,” Xiao added.
The essay itself was centred on Wen’s mother, Yang Zhiyun, and described the difficulties she endured as well as Wen’s own humble origins. Yang was one of the several relatives implicated in a 2012 New York Times investigation into the billions of dollars Wen’s family amassed during his premiership from 2003-13.
“My Mother” also mentioned the beating Wen’s father received during the Cultural Revolution. Violence during the period is not often discussed in public in China, and even more rarely by political leaders.
The essay was originally published in the Macau Herald, which is based in the former Portuguese colony, where publications enjoy looser restrictions than mainland Chinese newspapers.
Chinese dissidents abroad interpreted one of the closing lines of the essay as a criticism of Xi’s presidency.
It read: “The China in my heart should be a country filled with fairness and justice, where there will forever be respect for human hearts, humanity and human nature, where there will forever be youth, freedom and struggle.”
The article may have drawn censors’ scrutiny because it was so widely shared by dissidents. “The authorities certainly monitor the social media activity of overseas dissidents, which could have been the trigger for this censorship,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonym of the activist heading the censorship monitoring organisation GreatFire.org.
“They also never seem to care about the Streisand effect,” Smith added, referring to the phenomenon in which an attempt to hide something online merely draws more attention to it.