This is not the first time new leaders have raised hopes of liberalizing China, only to push back against people trying to test the limits. Under Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, China's leadership talked up the need for rule of law, scrapped a much-abused rule giving police the power to jail rural migrants and, after a botched government cover-up of the SARS pneumonia epidemic, called for more openness. But by year's end, Hu's government was taking aim at activist lawyers and public intellectuals pushing for faster change.
Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan said part of the problem for Xi is that the transition of power is not yet complete. Xi became the Communist Party's general secretary in November but will not be installed as China's president until March.
"It's hard for the new leadership to resolve because they are not fully in power yet," Zhang said. "Before the new power gets settled in, it will sway left and right, like a tightrope walker before it can steady himself toward the end."
Liu Kang, a Duke University professor of Chinese media and communication studies, said the incident shows that the party's leadership is faced with an impasse on press freedom.
"If it loosens its grip, the country will plunge into chaos," Liu said. "If it doesn't, the frustration will continue to build up."