This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is stepping up a crackdown on high-ranking officials found in possession of banned books and magazines with “sensitive” political content.
Authorities in the central province of Hunan announced on Oct. 29 that they had expelled former Changsha deputy mayor Chen Zehun from the party for “serious violations of discipline and law,” after he brought banned reading material into the country.
“Chen Zehun violated political discipline by buying books and periodicals with serious political problems overseas, then bringing them into the country and reading them over a long period of time,” state news agency Xinhua reported.
Chen had “privately stored the publications, colluded with others to destroy and hide evidence in the case,” and failed to cooperate with investigators from the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the report said.
He was also accused of “illegally occupying agricultural land to build private houses,” abuse of power, and taking bribes, with “extremely large” amounts involved, Xinhua said.
Chen Zehun lost touch with the spirit of the party, and became lawless and arrogant, with excessive personal desires and an obsession with accumulating wealth, the report said.
While most of the list of charges against Chen are similar to accusations leveled against many high-ranking officials targeted by CCP general secretary Xi Jinping for corruption, the illegal publications charge is relatively new.
Chengdu-based dissident writer Tan Zuoren said the authorities have previously prosecuted officials found with banned publications, but in a fairly low-key manner.
“This sort of thing is happening more intensively now, and it is being publicly reported,” Tan told RFA. “They are warning the general population and CCP members that the lines are being redrawn.”
“We will definitely see an increase [in these sorts of cases],” he said.
Chengdu-based rights activist Huang Xiaomin agreed, saying the CCP is worried that ideas it regards as subversive will spread privately among its members.
“They are definitely trying to nip this sort of thing in the bud, and make an example of him,” Huang said. “They want to scare off anyone else with the party who may be thinking of spreading heretical ideas.”
“Why now? I think it’s because China finds itself hemmed in internationally, with some high-ranking officials of a more liberal persuasion starting to see major issues with the way things are run.”
Chen Zehun’s disgrace comes after authorities in the eastern province of Anhui meted out similar treatment to former Huainan municipal party secretary Li Zhong after he was found to have “brought publications with serious political problems” into the country.
Li was also accused of corruption and abuse of power at the same time.
Guangzhou-based rights activist Ye Xiaozheng said there is a strong appetite among the general population for overseas publications, which is why the CCP is cracking down.
“If they go after overseas publications, they can stave off doubt and suspicion of the current system among their own officials,” Ye said. “[These publications] contain a lot of information that isn’t widely known, and people and officials alike love to read overseas political publications.”
“But now that the political climate is moving further and further towards the left, they are cracking down harder and harder on overseas reading materials,” he said.
“Political publications are now seen as subversive … and they don’t want their officials’ faith in communism to start wavering,” Ye said.
Appetite for political writing
An academic who travels frequently between Hong Kong and Beijing, who gave only his surname Ma, said there is still a huge appetite for political writing from Hong Kong, although it is often for more salacious forms of political gossip.
“In Hong Kong, there are political books in Chinese, but there aren’t that many promoting democracy, freedom, and human rights,” Ma said.
He cited the cross-border detentions of five booksellers linked to Causeway Bay Books in 2015, for selling banned political publications to customers in mainland China.
“There were a lot of books in the Causeway Bay Books store containing secrets about the government, and also salacious books about some of China’s leaders,” Ma said.
“This shows that [the CCP] is also very nervous about the private lives and the public image of its leaders,” he said.
The Beijing News reported in March that a district-level CCP leader in the Chongqing police department, Li Bin, was probed in connection with a “loss of ideals,” and for “privately bringing books with serious political problems into the country, reading and storing them.”
Li was expelled from the party and placed under criminal investigation, the report said.