Recently I found that because I’m Chinese, living in China and speaking decent English, I’ve been increasingly invited by foreign media to comment on China, especially on the red-hot Internet censorship issue since I’m also blogging. (Oh, being a “filmmaker” helps.) A Scottish paper profiled me for their Chinese New Year’s special. Business Week asked for my view on using proxy servers to get around the Great Firewall. BBC News interviewed me on Google’s censored Chinese search engine.
The reporters all requested the interviews at the last minutes for their encroaching deadlines. I always wondered – how the hell do I represent the “Chinese” view on anything in China? But hey, every one enjoys his/her 15 minutes of talk time.
Two nights ago, I joined three other “Chinese residents” for a forum discussion on BBC World Service, once again on censorship in China. It was 2am in the morning and I was thinking my 15 minutes were going too far. Of the four participants, one was an expat lawyer in Shanghai who sounded Southeast Asian, the second a British expat living in Shanghai, the third an activist artist/writer from Hong Kong, and me, the token Beijinger. I remember wondering – which of us represents the perspective of the “Chinese”?
Today purely by chance, I bumped into the blog of Yan, the Hong Kong activist artist/writer who was the only one at the forum criticizing the Chinese government throughout. Here’s what she said about me (you can also find a link on her blog to listen to the program):
Tian (my pseudonym) a film-maker who is Chinese and lives in China was very interesting. He had a very strong grasp on the political situation in China and seemed to be really intelligent and thoughtful but when pushed reverted to the usual, "People in China are not ready for free speech," because like everyone in China has been brought up to believe it will cause civil war and chaos instead of a lesser Police State. The thought passed me by to ask Tian if he ever thought it's possible he had bought into Chinese Government Propaganda and just repeating it, but not only would that have been rude but he also may not actually want the authorities on his back afterward. My friend who was listening asked me if he was being paid by the government, but I really don't think so. I think he was passionate in his own way.Ok, I never said “People in China are not ready for free speech”. I said that for me and a small percentage of the population, free speech is important because that directly impacts what we do (Politics aside, can you imagine the film censors wouldn’t allow any ghost-movie because it’s considered superstitious?); but based on my observation, most Chinese don’t care about freedom of speech that much, with wealth-making being the current king.
I know that wasn’t much of a stand which modern media seem to demand on hot-button issues. But the longer I live in China, the more difficult I find it to take a stand, especially on issues related to China. So let me put my MBA hat back on and play with the complexity of the censorship issue with bullet points:
1. Progress or Backwards? the extent of censorship vs information availability
a. Internet is growing rapidly in China. Chinese are having access to exploding amount of information which they couldn’t have fathomed a decade ago.
b. The information is censored, especially in politics, history and news. Chinese are being goaded by the government to think in certain directions.
c. But smart people can get around the Great Firewall via proxy servers. And if one reads English, there’s no much censorship to speak of unless one considers:
- that BBC (blocked) offers much superior and often exclusive content compared to CNN and NY Times, or
- that speeches on Falun Gong, pro-Taiwan-independence and anti-Communist-party (I mean politically anti) are unalienable rights for the average Chinese.
a. Why are the foreign media working up so high a frenzy over this? Don’t they know they can’t impose their will on China, if Chinese don’t want to change themselves?
b. Of course the foreigners care, because that’s in the core of their value system. Without them being ga-ga over this, the situation in China would be worse.
c. Worse. Hmm. Really? That’s very conceited. Do they want to repeat Iraq in China?
d. And who says free speech is essential to an acceptable society? Look at Singapore. Look at all the democracies that can’t feed their own people. Press freedom is not the most urgent issue in China.
e. What’s the urgent issue in China then? Without press and political freedom, none of China’s current major problems can be solved satisfactorily.
3. Do Chinese care?
a. The average Chinese I know doesn’t. Of course we can always argue about my sample size, and the predisposition in my observation.
b. But if given the chance (free speech in education and public discourse), would Chinese cherish the freedom then?
c. And why do we care about the “average” Chinese? Every individual deserves the full human rights declared in the UN charter.
d. That’s just a pipe dream! People want to make their lives better first.
e. How long will this “first” last? Any longer we Chinese would truly live like panda bears, growing fat and not thinking. We have to start changing.
4. How to change?
a. Ok, to change, but how? You expect the people who have power will suddenly see the light?
b. If only the communists will lose their power! But wait, what are the alternatives? Go to New York and listen to the squabbling of the dissident groups. Or interview the university students in Beijing and ask for their definition of democracy and see how many of them support voting rights for the peasants. It’s not entirely a political issue. It’s a cultural issue as well.
c. So what are you saying? Paralyzed by the difficulties?
d. No no no. Change has to happen. But the Chinese have to figure it out themselves. The foreign media can continue to go ga-ga over this. Will all the media attention serve much purpose beyond acting as the fad of the day though? I wonder.
Whew! Now these bullet points are off my chest, what a relief! Now you see why I wouldn’t want to take a stand – it’s simply too exhausting to weigh the bullet points all at once.
What if I have to take a stand then? What if as in my business-school strategy class, there’s a professor who demands a stand from me, telling me “after you’ve done Porter’s five-force analysis for the company’s proposed entry into a brand new market, after you’ve compared the costs and benefits, you have 60 seconds to make a recommendation to the CEO, what would it be?”
Indeed, what would it be?
I would forget about the bullet points, forget about analysis, forget about my desire to go with the “average” Chinese (because I don’t know the “average” Chinese and my decision has zero influence over the “average” Chinese’s), and stake my stand based only on me, on what I, as an individual, would want in a democratic society, because that’s the only decision making process capable of making any honest sense to me – I don’t want to live in a society that doesn’t allow me to express myself freely!
But wait, would that land me in prison?