The homepage of the influential intellectual website “Gongshi” or Consensus (21ccom.net) became inaccessible on 1 October, Chinese National Day. The timing of the block suggested that the shutdown was intentional and symbolic. Numerous netizens have declared that the incident marks the “end of consensus.”
While the homepage was inaccessible at the time of this article's publication, URLs for specific individual posts are still functioning.
Launched on 1 September 2009 and operated by Lide Consensus Media Group, Gongshi written mostly for an audience within the Chinese government and Communist Party. With sections dedicated to global affairs, China studies, and “Revisiting History,” Gongshi includes among its writers academics, experienced journalists, prominent writers and legal experts. Most are political liberals. The magazine's mission is to “seek consensus in the era of great transformation.”
The magazine is distributed through special subscription channels and its target audiences are Chinese government officials, corporate CEOs, top ranking People's Liberation Army officials and other similar entities. The website also is affiliated the Hong Kong-based magazine Leader, which ceased operations several months ago after nearly twelve years of operation.
Similar to the reformist magazine Yanhuang Chunqui, which was taken over in July 2016 after authorities raided its offices and took control of the website, Gongshi is believed to have been connected to a power sector from within the Chinese Communist Party. It was designed as an experiment in “authoritarian deliberation,” an academic term denoting participatory consensus-building in addressing social and political crisis in an authoritative regime.
Zhou Zhixing, one of the founders of Gongshi and the Editor-in-Chief of Leader has many high-level connections within the CCP. Zhou explained the shutdown on WeChat:
the authorities want us to shut down the website, saying that the platform had spread wrong ideas. With dismay, we shut down. This is my report.
The closure of the homepage was unexpected. As recently as 29 September, Gongshi announced on their social media account the details of a US tour, that would include visits to a number of academic institutions to interview scholars and experts on their views about US-China relations after the US presidential election.
Observers have shared various speculations on what exactly caused the shutdown. Yue Wenxiao, a writer from Falun Gong-affiliated dissent site, Sound of Hope, compiled a list of politically sensitive stories published by Gongshi in 2016. Titles include:
- “Banned Books and Self-Enlightenment” by Zhu Dake, professor from Shanghai Tongji University
- “Yes to Election. No to Selection: Reflection on Taiwan's Presidential Election” by Lui Junning, a mainland Chinese liberal scholar
- “Anti corruption fight should be built upon the denial of stability control” by Sun Liping, professor from Tsinghua University
- “Who funded the Chinese Communist Revolution,” a special item for the website
These topics are clearly sensitive and would not be allowed to be published in the majority of media outlets in China. The space for these kinds of political deliberations has to come from top leaders. But such spaces have diminished since current president Xi Jinping consolidated his power in 2012.
Yuan Bin, a mainland Chinese political exile in Taiwan proclaimed the shutdown as a sign of the end of the reformist project on overseas dissent site, Epoch Times:
The recent crackdown on speech by the CCP indicated that it does not want to build consensus with the reformists who are eager to seek consensus from within the party. Not only does it not want to build consensus, it does not even allow those who want to build consensus on democratic reform without challenging the principle of single-party dictatorship to exist. The crackdown on human right lawyers, the takeover of Yanhuang Chunqui and the shutdown of Gongshi deliver one message to them [the reformists]: I cannot have any consensus with you. There is no way for me to pick up the western model. On my turf, I won’t allow the existence of any special region for politics and thoughts.
On Chinese social media, many shared the feeling that the incident marks the end of an era:
Although there are so many websites serving different interests showing up, it is difficult to find a site where you can find truly intellectual thoughts. In the past two years, I visited Gongshi every day and all of a sudden it has shut down. Judging from the political atmosphere, we are on the path to our past. I just could not have anticipated that the regression would happen so quickly. But can our society really return to Mao's era?
Gongshi has ceased to operate. China no longer has scientific socialism and socialist democracy.
Since distinctive URLs linking to individual posts still work, some believe that the site will be restored or taken over by more “loyal” and “submissive” editorial team, sharing a fate similar to that of Yanhuang Chunqui. In this case of Yanhuan Chunqui, the takeover happened abruptly, without the lead editors’ involvement or consent.