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Provocative blog post stirs fire storm in China

UTIL RECENTLY Li Guangman, retired editor of an obscure public newspaper that writes left-wing screeds online for a few fellow travelers, was unknown to the general public. That changed on August 29, when the country’s largest state and party media released an inflammatory blog post by Mr. Li to their vast audiences, making many believe his views were officially supported. It caused such a stir that a prominent figure in the state media, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of World time, a chauvinist party tabloid – felt compelled to issue a scathing rebuttal.

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The episode may have offered a rare glimpse of uncertainty in elite party circles as to what exactly President Xi Jinping wants. A year before he claims a third five-year term as party secretary, Xi is embarking on a populist campaign against inequality under the slogan “common prosperity for all.” We don’t know how far he intends to go.

Mr. Li hopes very far. Under the headline “Everyone can sense that a profound change is happening! His article relishes the recent crackdowns on big business, celebrities and the super-rich. He suggested that this was just the start of an anti-capitalist and anti-Western campaign that would return the Communist Party to its socialist roots. The country was living a moment of “deep revolution”, he writes. The “red” would soon return and China would no longer be “a paradise for capitalists to get rich overnight” or “a paradise for effeminate men”.

But Mr. Li’s views were too radical, even for a populist establishment brand like Mr. Hu. On September 2, he wrote a blog post disputing that a “revolution” is at hand and, in a veiled reference to the excesses of the disastrous Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, called the rhetoric inflammatory. “I fear that such language may awaken some historical memories,” triggering “confusion and panic,” he wrote. Both articles are still available online.

It is highly unusual for state media to promote the rants of obscure bloggers. “It’s a person,” says Jude Blanchette of CSRS, a think tank and author of China’s New Red Guards, a book about neo-Maoists. And Mr. Hu’s rebuke of an officially blessed essay was no less rare. What does all this mean?

A widely followed commentator among government officials argues that this does not mean much. Ren Yi, whose pseudonym is Chairman Rabbit, says he believes Mr. Li’s initial promotion to the post was “an accident,” and that no top executive pushed him. “Now you see officials doing a lot to calm people down,” Ren said, adding he was “disgusted” by the article’s anti-capitalist language. On September 2, Xi gave a speech announcing a new stock exchange in Beijing to support small businesses. Four days later, Liu He, Xi’s economic adviser, said the private sector was an essential part of the economy and should receive “vigorous” support.

The targets of Mr. Xi’s crackdown might not be so easily comforted. Consider what happened in August. A party commission pondered Mr. Xi’s desire to achieve shared prosperity for all and decided that the rich should pay more. Tencent, a tech giant, quickly pledged $ 7.7 billion in social programs. Zheng Shuang, a famous actress, was fined $ 46 million for tax evasion. The Supreme People’s Court has declared the 72-hour workweek, a staple of China’s odd-job economy, illegal.

Xi is walking a fine line, to show that he understands popular anger at inequality without scaring the horses of the new economy. Blanchette sees the debate as a reflection of uncertainty within the establishment about the intensity of Xi’s campaign.

The state’s interventions are extremely popular with leftists like Mr. Li, and he has received a lot of support online. A blogger, writing under the pseudonym “Little Z, Citizen Watch,” concluded that Mr. Li was “too radical” and Mr. Hu “too conservative.” But Little Z mostly backed Mr. Li. The “love at first sight” of recent regulatory action was an “exciting” harbinger of new coercive measures to close the wealth gap, he wrote. “This is just the prologue.”

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Talkin ” bout a revolution”

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