That the CPC leadership has strengthened - and not eased - its grip over ideological control was evident on the 24th anniversary of the student protests

After Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang took over as China’s most powerful leaders in November, liberals and pro-reform voices were invigorated by hopes for change under the new leadership with a markedly different profile from their predecessors.

Mr. Xi (59), the son of liberal former leader Xi Zhongxun, adopted a relaxed demeanour in public, in sharp contrast with former President Hu Jintao. His first few speeches won praise from progressives, with the President and Party General Secretary arguing for strengthening the rule of law, the power of the Constitution and curbs on corruption.

The charismatic Mr. Li (57) was a product of the pro-democracy student protests that rocked China in the 1980s. While the Prime Minister was not directly involved, many of his close classmates, with whom he was known to enjoy long debating sessions, later became student leaders in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Yet, under their leadership the Party has only strengthened rather than eased ideological control, whether through the media or in universities — a fact sharply underscored on Tuesday, the 24th anniversary of the violent denouement of the student protests.

In the early hours of June 4, 1989, the leadership under Deng Xiaoping sent tanks through Beijing’s streets to clear the square, and hundreds were shot dead around the capital.

Since then, tightening of controls on June 4 has become an annual affair. This year, too, the authorities remained wary of allowing any public reflection on the protests, issuing warnings to university students and restricting discussions online.

Groups of retirees, sporting red “security volunteer” armbands, were deployed across Beijing, serving as the eyes and ears of the police in neighbourhoods, keeping a close watch for signs of trouble.

Students in at least two universities here were told to avoid public gatherings of any kind and to stay in their dormitories.

In southern Shenzhen, students were explicitly warned not to follow their counterparts in Hong Kong, who carried out a “black shirt campaign” to mark the day. A notice calling on all Communist Party members to participate in “stability maintenance” work in the lead-up to the anniversary warned that students needed to “unconditionally obey school plans”. “There must be absolutely no reactionary speech, online discussions, or demonstrations,” said the notice, which was published on the China Digital Times website.

The CPC has also tightened its ideological grip on universities in more subtle ways, belying the expectations many scholars had of the new leaders.

Must-do research

Recently, the State Council issued a list of 60 research topics that every university department has to study. Failure to do so means withholding of Central funds. Many of the topics centre on Mr. Xi’s message of a “Chinese dream” to “rejuvenate the Chinese nation”, a favoured theme of Chinese nationalists.

Others warn of the dangers of democracy. One topic is titled “the historical limitation of the modern Western political system”. Another calls for “research in the hypocritical nature of Western freedom of speech and media”.

Bao Tong, a former Central Committee member and senior aide to the liberal Premier Zhao Ziyang who was ousted in the lead-up to the Tiananmen protests, last week said he was somewhat “perplexed” by the seemingly contrarian message from the new leaders.

He said he had admiration for Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, for his reformist views, and had hoped his son would follow suit. He also urged the new leadership to stop protecting the legacies of Deng and Mao Zedong to allow transparent reflection on the tragedies of 1989 and the Cultural Revolution.

“I think every Chinese, officials or ordinary people, those who were persecuted or benefited, should all reflect upon this issue,” Mr. Bao (81) told the South China Morning Post.

Mr. Xi has made clear such a prospect remains unlikely. During a tour to Guangdong in December, he hit out at those who were calling for diluting the party’s ideological control. “Some people define reform as changes towards the universal values of the West, the Western political system, or it will not constitute ‘real’ reform. This is a stealthy tampering of the concept and a misunderstanding of our reform,” he said.

However, a new challenge for the new leadership is that unlike in the past, the proliferation of social media has enabled a wider discussion on issues such as June 4 that find no mention in official media.

Even this week, prominent Chinese, from filmmakers to journalists, made oblique references to the protests and to restrictions on Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese Twitter equivalent which has more than 500 million users. Searches for “June 4” or references to the protests were blocked. Censors were even careful to temporarily disable the “candle” symbol from Weibo for the day.

But there was “no need to worry about forgetting”, wrote well-known filmmaker Jia Zhangke. “At least,” he said, “the censors remember”.

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