With record air pollution hanging over China in mid-January, it made sense for celebrity blogger Li Chengpeng to wear a face mask. But the former investigative journalist, who has racked up 6.6 million followers on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, wasn't protecting himself from the foul air. Before a book signing for his latest collection of essays, Everyone in the World Knows, Li was told by authorities that he could take "no questions from readers, no talking at all not even 'happy new year' or 'thank you.'" His response to the gag order? Sartorial subversion in the form of a black face mask. "The excessive concentration of power in China has resulted in the law being controlled by the powerful," he told TIME. "If there is not even freedom of speech, then I'm not optimistic about political reform at all."
It has been just over two months since China's new leader Xi Jinping became the most powerful man in the world's most populous nation. After a decade of paralysis under Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao, hopes have proliferated that Xi a vigorous figure whose father was a reformist Communist Party elder might prove more receptive to political reform. But to expect Xi to suddenly tear down the Bamboo Curtain just weeks into a 10-year tenure is unrealistic. And beyond the lip service the new Chinese Communist Party chief has paid to tackling corruption and promoting the constitution, there's precious little to signal his personal commitment to liberalization. Hu talked an awful lot about democracy and rule of law when he first came to power. Nothing happened.
The Xi decade has started with a distinct chill and not just because the country is suffering its coldest winter in nearly 30 years. Internet controls have intensified, with access to top foreign news sites blocked and rules tightened to force Chinese social-media users to reveal their true identities. Censorship has gotten so oppressive that journalists at Southern Weekend, one of the country's most respected newspapers, went on strike. The government's gargantuan propaganda network shows no sign of slimming down Beijing's propaganda chief recently admitted that the city's spin-doctoring effort employs 2.06 million people.
Speculation that China's system of re-education through labor, or laojiao, will soon be abolished means little for the 60,000 people currently toiling in its work camps without trial. And regardless of whether laojiao disappears, so-called black jails, which operate in a shadowy sphere completely removed from China's legal system, will continue to exist. Dissidents or petitioners can disappear without a trace or be charged with ludicrous crimes. In recent days, Chinese celebrities who supported freedom of expression in their online postings have been "invited for tea," a euphemism for intimidation sessions with security agents. Kai-Fu Lee, the Taiwanese-American former head of Google China, posted a picture of a tea set on Weibo in response to the forcible cuppa he and others have endured.
It's not just prominent Chinese or the usual clique of human-rights campaigners who are speaking out. More than 10,000 people lined up in three Chinese cities to buy blogger Li's book, which details official failings, like corruption and abuse of power. A growing stratum of middle-class Chinese has more to protect and is using the Internet to police a government that appears unwilling to fulfill that task. Practically every day brings news of another wayward official brought down by an online campaign to expose his lavish property holdings or harem. Protests against environmental degradation are also organized online. "We all hope our country can be stable and wealthy," Li told TIME, shortly after a pair of mysterious men tried to attack him at his Beijing book event. "Our criticism is our expression of patriotism. We try to change, not to overthrow."
Just as Li was signing books in the capital, the pollution turned so toxic that it far surpassed the highest notch on the yardstick the U.S. uses to measure pollution going "beyond index." Previously, Chinese authorities have underplayed the smog, referring to it as "fog" and arguing implausibly that Beijing's air has improved every year for the past 14 years. But this poisonous pall was impossible to ignore. Even People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, ran a front-page story on it. One of the reasons for the noxious air is a spike in people burning coal to keep warm during this icy winter so things should improve, if only seasonally, as the capital warms up. But a Beijing spring that brings the blue skies of political reform? Don't hold your breath.
with reporting by chengcheng Jiang / Beijing