May 7, 2007

Why can’t we just talk?

Filed under: China,politics — Kim @ 8:40 am

I teach some debate classes at my university. Next week’s topic (from the state-approved textbook!) is “Censorship”, which has obviously got me thinking again about the whole issue. I have listened to student debates about censorship in Japan before and they tended to circle around old chestnuts like whether it should be legal to shout “Fire” in a crowded room, and the extent to which porn and violence can mess with children’s/teenagers’ minds.

Well, that was in Japan where they have widespread and deeply ingrained conformity of thinking (so-called “groupthink”) but little outright censorship. China is a different fettle of kish. Chinese culture is also conformist, but censorship is big business in China. Much like in the bad old Soviet days, the CCP employs a large number of people to monitor public discourse, censor the internet, and lock up dissenters.

China was the country with the most jailed journalists for the eighth year in a row, with at least 31 journalists behind bars. About three-quarters were convicted under vague charges of subversion or revealing state secrets, and more than half were online journalists.,,1967847,00.html

It’s not just press blackouts and blocked sites that annoys, it’s the dreary, bootlicking, fatuous excuses for news on the TV channels and in the “news”papers that make up the Chinese mainstream media. Mr Yang Rui over on CCTV 9’s “Dialogue” is not a bad sort I think, but this description of the programme takes the biscuit for barefaced BS…

Dialogue provides fair and comprehensive analysis of current affairs within the framework of cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary comparisons. Chinese and foreign guests openly express their opinions on issues making headlines in China and around the world. Through frank discussions, and sometimes heated debates, viewers are encouraged to reach their own conclusions.

“comprehensive, open(ly), frank, heated”. Give me a break here. If they really were all of those things they’d be off the air pronto.

Oh yes, and the BBC news website is blocked in China.

Media censorship is one issue, but just as important I think is the censorship of what goes on in classrooms, chatrooms, and public discussions, and this post is largely focusing on this second type of censorship.

Now, I am new in China and anxious not to rock the boat too much until I get to know the vessel better, at least. So there is no way I am going to come out loud and clear telling my students what I really think about censorship in China.

What I really think is that it is wrong, ridiculous, outdated and humiliating. Surprise, surprise, an English guy thinks that CCP censorship is wrong! Well, no surprise, but I said it’s not just wrong but ridiculous, outdated and humiliating. Average citizen of modern China…no face for you!

Censorship in Twenty First Century China is ridiculous on several levels, but the main point I would like to kick around here is whether or not the Chinese government has the overwhelming support of its populace on almost every single debatable issue that counts. Surely it is fair to say that a large majority of Chinese would go along with the party stance on Tibet, Taiwan, and, yes, even Tiananmen. (“They were just students! Too young to know the right path for a country!’ And surely there must have been at the back of many people’s minds the terrible happenings when the Red Guard students did their worst during The Cultural Revolution.) And wouldn’t almost all Chinese support the party when it censors dissent, when it cracks down on the Falun Gong, when it champions Mao, when it attacks Japan, when it “develops the countryside” by taking away land from the peasants, and when it does anything it wants to really? I think it is fair to say that these days most Chinese people agree with the party line to the extent that CCP censorship isn’t necessary.

Generalizing about such vast numbers of people is skating on thin ice, but it is my general impression that the above is true, and also that most western commentators on China believe it to be the case too.

And I believe that the Chinese “believers” deserve to be given the opportunity of justifying why it is that they hold the opinions that they do. Sometimes they will do it clumsily, with prickly pride and not much substance, and sometimes they will spout the same old, same old, crappy party clichés. But sometimes they will doubtless surprise us with subtle, wise, and well constructed arguments. I certainly don’t believe the Chinese are stupid (though some are) or brainwashed (ditto); but they certainly are underinformed. In any case, the main point is that they are not allowed to speak out freely.

Something pretty similar to this was dealt with nicely in a couple of recent posts by Dave at the oddly named “Mutant Palm” In these posts he was basically scolding western Tibet protestors for ignoring Chinese people (NB not the CCP) and acting as if their opinions don’t matter. On reflection this does seem a self-serving thing to do and he goes on to point out that such protests by being aimed at a western audience are therefore pretty much preaching to the converted, kind of like what I’m doing here I suppose!

He then – forcefully – makes the point that:

Chinese people are not programmed robots. They actually form their own opinions, and they don’t believe they are stupid. It is not enough to learn the language; you must listen to their perspective and respect them as fully formed human beings who believe it sincerely. If all you do is harass them about being genocidal maniacs and mindless Communist zombies, they won’t listen to it. Because you’re being a jerk, and they don’t deserve personal blame for the actions of their government. Just like it’s not my personal fault as an American that thousands of Iraqis are dead, and if some Chinese guy starts telling me it is, I don’t listen to him either.

But all too often any Chinese-Western/Pro CCP-Anti CCP dialogue (however fruitless it might be) cannot get started in the first place because of censorship. For example, it is written into the contract of my part-time job, that I am not to discuss the three T’s (Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen) with any of my students.

So censorship is also ridiculous because it belittles and infantilizes Chinese. I have written elsewhere about how westerners tend to look down on Chinese as being immature because of their own government’s attitude towards them, but I do not of course believe that they are childish. I think they are poorly informed, and that this is not entirely their fault.

But some of it is their fault, and here arises a real conundrum. If most Chinese would toe the party line, then do they believe that it is right that they themselves should be censored? Some do, doubtless. Most, I think, do not but are not prepared to take the risks to speak out about it. They have ways and means of finding samizdat information and they are not going to make a fuss about censorship, and so, tacitly, they accept it. Because they are scared, I guess, and understandably so!

Mr “Manchurian Candidate” Kyle has a great post about this in which he makes the points that Chinese people by and large trust their goverment to think for them and to run their lives for them. They do not like to hear any opinions contrary to “party think” because it is bothersome to think too much and because if their government loses face, they lose face. It’s a bit unfair and “in yer face” but as he himself commented: “I was angry when I wrote this, and I wanted to evoke anger in some Chinese, but only to get them thinking. Sometimes, that is what it takes… and not just with Chinese.”

And I can’t resist quoting this bit from the post:

Listen, you can walk up to 10 people in the US and ask them if they believe their government was right in fighting the VietNam war, and you will more than likely hear 10 different answers ranging from “Hell no”, to “Hell yes”. (And, obviously, most Chinese would like to tell you how horrible the US was for fighting that war.)

Try asking a mainland Chinese person if they believe their government was right in invading VietNam in 1979 and 1984, and the majority of replies you will get will be “It never happened.”

Or, better yet, ask 10 people from the US, EU, Australia, or nearly any country, “What has your country done wrong in the past 50 years?” and you will hear a torrent of replies. Ask the same question to 10 Chinese mainlanders, and you will hear the wind whistling through the trees for about 20 minutes. Are we to believe that the Chinese have come up with a way to never do anything wrong?

Not fair, perhaps, but effective! We need to stir things up from time to time, and if people get offended then…woosums. Argue back.

I am not going to get on my high horse about what Chinese should and shouldn’t do about the whole censorship issue, but I do believe that it is humiliating for them and that they should protest it. How and when is a tricky question of course, but until the level of censorship is drastically cut then I believe the Chinese are accepting that they are not to be trusted with complicated issues and that they are therefore immature and incapable of proper debate.

I personally would like to be able to talk these issues with Chinese, and especially with my students, without feeling that I am going to get myself or other people into trouble. Why can’t we just talk about it all? Would anyone mind translating this post into Chinese and distributing it as a pamphlet around the mainland? About half a billion copies should do the trick.

I am looking forward to my debates next week.

PS I wonder if this post will get censored.

May 5, 2007


Filed under: China,culture — Kim @ 7:13 pm

A late night thought…

Anybody out there have a song that they genuinely like that has a China reference in it?

My 2 offerings are

“But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”
Beatles. Revolution.

“And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.”
Leonard Cohen. Suzanne.

That’s all that comes to mind so late on a Saturday night.


May 3, 2007

Foreign Mud

Filed under: China,politics — Kim @ 7:08 pm

Anyone who doesn’t know about BBC Radio 4’s “In Our Time” with Melvyn Bragg is missing out on a weekly treat.

There’s an online archive so you can gorge yourself on a 3-year backlog of intellectual, informative and engaging chit-chat.

Last month the eggheads were yakking about the Opium Wars and this can be found at

In the last ten minutes they start talking about how Chinese governments have used, and continue to use, the Opium Wars as a way to stir up national resentment against foreigners and “to unite the people so that they don’t start asking questions about their leaders.” Which is an interesting bit, obviously.

There is also another part (19mins thru) where they talk about an incident that apparently sparked the first Opium War off . So, basically, on July 12 1839 some British sailors in Hong Kong got steaming drunk and decided they want to get totally wankered…so they stagger into Kowloon to buy some more booze off a local grocer. Mr Chinese grocer unwisely refuses them because he thinks they’ve had enough and so they kick him to death and steal his liquor.

Brits haven’t changed much. Aggressive alcoholics are endemic in the UK and I believe the Chinese are more civilized in this respect.

But anyway, the Chinese comissioner Lin Tse-hsu demanded that the perps face Chinese justice. The British captain refused and said they would be punished by British justice. So far, so typical I guess, but the intriguing bit is the ensuing “Battle of Kowloon”.

Lin decided to starve the Brits into submission and so ordered his fleet of junks (junkies) to attack British ships if they tried to come ashore. Ok, fine, but this was at a time when the British navy was very strong (30 years after Trafalgar) and their warships much more technologically advanced than anything China could put to sea.

Here is a western version of what happened next:

On September 4, two British merchant ships and a launch from the newly arrived warship attacked three Chinese junks that tried to prevent them from landing at Kowloon to obtain water and supplies.

Although the Chinese warships returned the British fire, they did no damage to the British ships, and were forced to retreat after being badly shot up by cannonballs.

The captains of the defeated Chinese junks feared that their failure would be viewed by higher authorities as a disgraceful act of cowardice. The captains therefore reported to Commissioner Lin that they had won a victory and had sunk a British ship.

And here’s a Chinese account:

On September 4, 1839, five British naval vessels launched a surprise attack on the maritime forces of Dapeng Fortress in the waters off Kowloon. Chinese troops in fishing boats, led by General Lai Enjue, defeated the better-equipped enemy. The Kowloon naval battle is now widely considered the start of the Opium Wars.

So, not much agreement on what happened there then. And why is it that I find myself trusting the western source more? Hmmm, must be because I’m English I guess. Yes, that must be it!

The western source also describes Lin’s hubris

Lin assumed that his Chinese warships were superior to the ships of the British navy. He thought that Europeans were primitive barbarians. British fabrics were inferior to Chinese silk, British earthenware was inferior to Chinese ceramics, and the general behavior of British seamen seemed uncivilized, so Lin assumed that the British navy must be inferior to the Chinese navy. Lin did not know that even British civilian merchant ships were armed with cannon that were far deadlier and more accurate than any of the guns of the Chinese fleet.

And I find this fairly convincing because as is well known, at least where I come from, British naval superiority meant that Britain went on to kick the Middle Kingdom’s arse in two short Opium Wars.

So there you have it. Both sides come out of this looking terrible.

British = Drug peddling, aggressive, thuggish, exploitative, arrogant and bullying.

Chinese = Drug addicted, deluded, backward, more worried about face than facts, arrogant and “losers”.

The “Battle of Kowloon” was 1839. Fourteen years later, on July 8, 1853 Commodore Perry’s notorious black ships steamed up to Tokyo and scared the crap out of the Japanese.

Both China and Japan were pretty much traumatised when they found out the full extent of how far behind the west they were when it came to modern military technology, but only one managed to do something about it quickly.

Japan decided to avenge their national humilation. They tooled up sharpish and by 1905 were strong enough to defeat Russia. Japan then went on to start up its own Empire, the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” which was supposed to free fellow asians from the yoke of the white man. Trouble was, the Japanese colonialists were widely preceived as arrogant, exploitative and murderous, and were by and large hated.

Let’s hope the Chinese are wise enough to “avenge their humiliation” in a less aggressive way.

One über-grump over at doesn’t see that happening…

Some people I know go on about how China is getting better – they are wrong. It is getting worse, fast. The level of extreme nationalism is already high, and there are many days I feel like a Jew in 1936 Germany. There’s trouble coming, and it’s being planned at the highest levels. Getting the ‘People’ fired up, resentful, and hating foreigners is only one part of it.

Just remember: Hitler got his Olympics, too.

Well, fuck pessimism like that. I don’t see the Chinese as expansionist war-mongers. Yes there is Tibet and yes there is Xinjiang, but I really don’t see China today as being anything like as aggressive as the turn-of-the-twentieth century Japanese or the Nazis. Sure, some Chinese feel humiliated and a voluble minority make boastful, vicious threats, but they are an adolescent, unempowered minority. Most Chinese love their country but do not want to fight anyone else to prove it. And I can’t see the CCP provoking a world war.

Right or wrong prognosis? Only Taiwan will tell.