Friday, February 17, 2006

Do I Have To Take a Stand?

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.
2. Why are the laowais so ga-ga?
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?


Anonymous said...

great insights. while I agree to a certain extend of the promotion of free speech and democracy in China, but screw those arrogant hongkee and expat and western media who have the "superior" feeling and want to preach everything to chinese.

look at foxnews in the US. it makes me sick.

and the Economist which I followed for more than a decade - it has always, always, been negative and suspicious of china economy. bloody brits. i am not a "fen qing" and approve everything in china now, but western media is too much sometime.

try if you can have your opinion published given you have been in the circle of interviewee of western media.

- JG

Ceridwen Devi said...

In a way your blog proves your point. I will now log on and leave a comment. Afterwards I shall read it. Free speech, China style. Seems like every other blog. Keep it up. Just to also let you, I live ten minutes from Chinatown in Cardiff. My brother did dragon dances for the New Year. Have a good one!

Baomin said...

I share your feelings about the difficulty of taking a stand on a complex issue such as what are the most important things in China. I'll certainly give the western media a fair share of doubt because their past record doesn't prove they do indeed hope the best for other countries, especially when the country in considering is powerful and big enough to challenge their perceived superority and they constantly remind themselves of that country's growing economy becoming a national threat. Their own existence requires them to project themselves in a role holding a high moral ground. And they naturally want other observers to accept that as a fact instead of an conceited preoccupation and imagination. Ironically, they sometimes believe that is true and people follow their views without much thinking or reflection.
Is freedom of speech valuable in China? Absolutely. But what are the concrete steps to achieve it for the benefit of the entire society without disrupting the on-going progress of everyday life of "average" Chinese? It is a hard question. No real patriotic Chinese wants to open a Pandora's Box just to appease the western ideologues.

Anonymous said...

I used to be far away from this topic. But after oneday, my good friend told me that his good friend lost his job in Bing Dian Weekly (the newspaped was closed by Chinese government just before the last Chinese New Year), I felt the coldness and sadness deeply.

"He is a good journalist. But he can't work as a journalist in China now."I trust my friend's judgement and I feel sad for the cruelty.

This happened to him today, but it can happen to any of us tommorrow. If I were given the freedom to take the stand, I will go against it totally. But now I don't have the freedom. Thus I have to ask my friend to stay calm and forget his dream of being a good journalist in China.

So I take the stand that I don't mind western media to chase around China for the topic of free speech...

Beijing Loafer said...

I applaud your stand! Really. We need more angry people in China. At the very least we need more people to be honest with themselves - it's not ok to have rights taken away from us, after our stomachs have been fed.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Press freedom in China is important. First of all for the health of the Chinese population, as well as for the environmental protection in China: reporting about such problems should not put journalists in prison.

Secondly, press freedom is a concern for others outside of China as so many European, US, and Japanese companies are trading with China, setting up factories, and as travel increases. China, especially its economic development, is in the western news every day. Isn't this something Chinese people feel proud of?

Thirdly, it is depressing to read the comment that "No real patriotic Chinese wants to open a Pandora's Box just to appease the western ideologues." I think that is not the point at all. Any nation that needs censorship to keep itself together, is in deep crisis - such as Japan in the 1930s, or the Soviet Union until glasnost. Are you saying Communist China is in such a perilous state?

Baomin said...

I don't support or sympathise the recent outbursts of intensive sensorship going on in China. I have good friends at the Freezing Point and I felt argry about its forced closing as well. What I tried to convey in my previous comment was that I don't want people naively believing western media chasing Chinese government is because they stand for fair and justice and they indeed care for the benefit of Chinese people.

Beijing Loafer said...

Baomin, I disagree with you on your last comment. I have a good friend in Beijing who works for an American media company. She's been out of the US for 20 years and she genuinely cares for the Chinese people, despite the fact that from her reporting, you would suspect her being so tired of China and its problems.

Not every reporter is like her, of course.

We can always argue about the motives or the origins of their caring, just as we can argue about the missionaries all over the world whether they care more about their own salvation or that of the people they are preaching to. As always, I can't make up my mind on this one. So my tendency is to look at the person who's criticizing China - if s/he cares about China, then I'd listen; if the person is talking empty about ideals, then like the crass Chinese saying, I consider that little more than oral masturbation.

Anonymous said...

I entirely agree with your comment that the Chinese today are more interested in becoming wealthy and educated (ie: english speaking and business savy) than exercising free speech.
I studied at Beijing's Jingshan Xuexiao for half a year and as a hobby would ask students what they thought about Chinese censorship and free speech. They didn't care. Being at a prestigious school they wanted to become number one in their class, travel to the west and please their parents (usually in that order). Free speech was not on their mind. And I couldn't blame them. Their often well-connected and wealthy parents certainly didn't get that way by being a flagrant dissendent of the PRC. Keeping your mouth shut when you need to seems to be a trait Chinese parents are eager to teach their children.

Beijing Loafer said...

This is also a lesson learned after so many senseless political movements and government persecutions. I don't think I'd be speaking so openly, albeit in English, if I'm not sure I could get away when there's trouble.

Baomin said...

Western media as a whole is without doubt a propaganda machine just as government controlled Chinese media outlets. The differences between them exist in style and whether the motives are effectively disguised. I concede that westerm media in general is smarter than that of Chinese.

Are there true journalists caring for people of China instead of serving their masters in their commanding chains? Absolutely yes. It is true for both in Chinese media and western media. Does this fact invalidate the propaganda nature of the media. Absolutely not. I don't want people get confused by abnormalies than the norms. Mind you, what and how material s gets published and used is not decided by the journalists in the field but the guys setting in the board room. That's where the interests are weighed,views seleted and tones picked. If you check out the books by Noam Chomsky, you will understand the subtle yet powerful mechanism to shape the body and soul of the media conglomerates.

Beijing Loafer said...

I agree with your analysis but disagree with your conclusion. Yes the media in China and in the West are both controlled. But other than the difference in style and disguise, there's also the difference in degree. 50 steps IS different from 100 steps, despite the age old wisdom of a popular Chinese saying.

richard said...

Ironic, that last sentence of your post. Hope you're okay and that you'll be back soon. I also hope it's more clear now to some just why the waiguoren go so "gaga" over repression in China.

Anonymous said...

This is a matter of relativity. Recently I watched Stephen Colbert's satirical roasting of GW Bush on a US national TV. This kind of "incidence" would never happen in China. In this regard, China is backwards. On the other hand, US mainstream media has chosen to ignore Colbert's messages. In this regard, US mainstream media is not too different from Chinese propoganda machineries by exercising self-censorship. Read Michael Parenti's Cultural Struggle, for example, for an insightful analysis.

On big difference, though, is that many Americans STILL naively believe that they have a truly free press. While most of Chinese probably don't believe their official newspapers anyways.

Anonymous said...

I'll chime in on the comment that the "Western" press isn't really free. The corporations only exist to make money - NOT to inform the public. It's called shareholder value.

The corporations internally function as totalitarian institutions themselves, there's no democracy in decisiontaking etc.

Progressive Westerners consider their media are actually manufacturing consent, industrially producing the glue that holds society together.

In Europe this complete takeover of democratic society by capitalist corporations - called "privatisation" - is partially offset through state-financed media. They are free and do not underlie market forces.

And in Europe the situation is probably still best in France with a spectrum of opinion that is mostly unimaginable for US-Americans.

Considering the Chinese situation. Freedom of expression is a human right and a basic need. But from my practical experience the Western, capitalist system is far from perfect. It is especially problematic when media conglomerates take hold, like in the US. A few mega-companies effectively control national opinion, and that is effectively another totalitarian system.

JP said...

Is this the post that landed him in prison for 140 days? Simply asking rhetorical questions is a crime?

david findley said...

Democratic Liberalism is only a mode of government -- who is to say that it is the End of History? I certainly don't think it is. The only thing that keeps the FACADE of democracy alive in America is the vast abundance of resources and the Consumerist ideology. When the nation is sufficiently over-populated, and fossil fuels dry up... America will degenerate to anarchy and race war.

Support your government. Look at the strides it has made for your people in the past 50 years, and note its clear superiority to the American System.

If you want to give your life for something, fight corruption -- not for democracy.