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August 5, 2008

The Security Blanket


by Sascha Matuszak

A photographer friend of mine came to Chengdu in June to do a photo essay on a few topics of interest in Sichuan Gong Fu in Ya An, Hakka in the suburbs of Chengdu, and of course the earthquake that had just devastated much of the province. At the airport in Beijing, he bought a copy of National Geographic's special on China, "Inside the Dragon."

The magazine had been censored in a very crude and obvious manner. Some clerk in the vast bureaucracy had used a black marker to cross out references to the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, and several pictures of Mao from the Revolutionary Era were glued together. I sat in my home with several friends, Chinese and foreign, and we chuckled at the efforts of this clerk. We drank tea, discussed China's politics and society, and slowly pried the pages apart.

There was nothing we didn't discuss that afternoon. One of my friends grew up in the 1980s and '90s; another is a young girl, born in the late 1980s and barely out of college. There were no taboo topics, and we all considered ourselves very aware of censorship in China.

The government cannot control informal conversations among friends and does not pretend to try. The Great Firewall (all sites need proxies) which encompasses much more than blocked Internet sites sets the agenda for the Chinese people. The agenda places the Party at the very top of the food chain and establishes protocols between the people and their government. The Firewall is there to frame public and private conversations, not end them.

Censorship here is pervasive. It blankets all modes of public communication. Newspapers receive daily bulletins on what is not to be covered; TV is the mouth of the state. Advertisements, licenses for magazines, company logos, poetry basically any piece of writing, any photo or graphic, any symbol must conform to the agenda put forth by the government.

The education system is devoted to indoctrination as much as it is to developing a talented and skilled populace. This indoctrination program is in part responsible for the wave of protests that swept across the world when the Olympic Torch was violated in Paris and London. The youth of today are not only fiercely patriotic, but they also lack access to any other perspectives. They can't help but rage against what they deem to be insidious lies emanating from viscerally anti-China foreigners. "They hate us because we are Chinese."

The judiciary is in the firm grip of the Party. There is no such thing as a trial, let alone a fair trial. Although the number of lawyers in China is rising exponentially, they are paid very little and advance not for their knowledge of the law, but for the breadth of their connections within the Party.

Music and art in the mainland are also subject to Party approval. When singer A Mei sang the Taiwanese national anthem some years back, her records were banned on the mainland and she was prohibited from performing at any concerts until she showed the appropriate remorse. Chinese pop is some of the most contentless music in the world.

No one can dispute that the Party line intrudes on all aspects of public life.

This agenda, this system of though control, is based on a collection of "Nos and Don'ts." This and that image is not allowed. These words and those topics are taboo. In such a system, that which is allowed becomes a point of contention. A soft spot. Herein lies the story: the steady push at the soft belly of the Party line. Chinese are not ignorant of their government's heavyhanded censorship; it is the clearest thing in the world. The gray area surrounds that which the Party is ready to accept in the name of stability for stability is the goal of this Great Firewall.

And it goes much further than just public symbols, speech, and writing. In the months leading up to the Olympics, the Public Security Bureau (PSB) made the rounds, letting everyone know what was expected of them. The artists of Beijing are jittery when foreigners come through to interview them. Bar owners are nervous and watchful as the guests pile in. Petitioners brave enough to come to Beijing seeking redress face jail time and beatings. Walls block off the unsightly neighborhoods of Beijing in the midst of being "renovated."

At the various foreign houses The Heineken House, the Slovenia House, the Budweiser House Chinese nationals are only allowed in with an invite. The government not only restricts access to the Web, it also does not want its people to have unfettered access to large groups of foreigners. Who knows what crazy exchanges might happen in the Heineken House that might affect the Party's grip on the nation?

Rumors of bombs in Chengdu and Chongqing in recent days made the headlines in Tianya, but those links are now removed. The nation that cries wolf over terrorism in order to suppress its minorities hides all news of the wolves as they lurk at the front door.

This nation in which 86 percent of the people profess their confidence and optimism in the path the country is walking, where an economic leap has been made that has no precedent in history, on the eve of its great coming-out party is run by a government riddled with insecurity.

In the Name of Stability

Chinese President Hu Jintao made his rare address to the world and the foreign press for the same reason the Party maintains a vigorous Internet Firewall: stability.

Foreign journalists and readers across the world are outraged by blatant censorship of what they can read or write. Those who actually believed that the IOC and the Chinese government would all of a sudden release 1,000 white doves into the air and declare the Firewall dissolved got what they deserved: blocked sites, frustration, and confusion. The same goes for those who actually believed that China could somehow rid the entire Beijing area of all traces of smog. They should have armed themselves.

The "cooperation" between the IOC and China is at best a classic example of the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion says, hey, let me ride across the river on your back. The frog reluctantly agrees, and then is stung halfway across. As they both sink, the scorpion says by way of explanation, "I am a scorpion." Perhaps a more accurate description puts the Party and the IOC together in the role of the scorpion, with the international community playing the frog.

President Hu's address touched on several subjects besides the Olympics, including China's peaceful rise, fears of China's expansionism, and the slow, gradual development toward a socialist democracy.

If you take away the novelty of the president actually making an appearance, the speech he gave becomes nothing more than the same, old tired slogans of the Party, repeated a thousand times before. This time it was the big boss who mouthed "peaceful rise" and "mutual benefit" in front of foreign journalists, days before the opening ceremony. The speech was meant to address the world's ire at being lied to and calm the situation before the Games start to take the steam out of what is and always has been a media blitz on China's negative aspects.

The Party hopes that a fine ceremony, a speech by the president, and the release of a site or two from the grip of the censors will distract people from the truth. Hu's conversation with the journalists is basically the scorpion telling the frog, "Don't worry, I'm reforming."

But don't expect the bugs in your hotel room to go away, don't expect the PSB to let all of the "undesirables" back in, and by no means expect the domestic media to change their tune.

Living Under a Blanket

The Chinese are used to being censored, but that does not mean they like it. The deep nationalist and patriotic sentiments of the Chinese people do lead to anger toward foreign media that seem to harp on all of the bad things, but this has nothing to do with how the people feel about their own government and media.

Everything in China business, justice, free speech, and politics operates in a gray area where the law of the land is a Party decree that may be reversed next month then reinstated with a clause two months later.

But gray might not be the right color for it, because this is where all of the living takes place. All of the dynamics that have wrought China's 30-year rise onto the world's stage take place in the greasy, gray area between what the Party can handle and what the individual can get away with.

On the street, I rely on the proverbial "cab driver," whom I can discuss anything with. Cabbies here are not only informed, they are passionate. And by "cabbie" I mean every tea-drinking, cig-smoking, card-playing Chinese out there. Naturally, we will disagree. But that's the whole point we're not talking about the Chinese being "Western," but being willing and able to discuss things without whipping out some Party slogan.

These street-side, cab-side, teahouse conversations are what help clarify what is possible for the individual in a society that demands conformity. These were once sufficient prods at the soft spot within Party doctrine to keep the "reform movement" on track toward eventual "socialist democracy."

But no longer. In fact, for years now the Internet has been the tip of the spear in the low-level conflict between individual freedom and national duty. On the Internet, bloggers can get away with almost anything, do so anonymously, and pop up like a gopher after the state's censor clerks remove the original post.

Also, China's Internet population is not just huge, it is extremely active. One hundred thousand people might see a post or story that makes it online for one hour before the censors remove it. And there is nothing more amazing than a Chinese rumor mill word travels very fast here, via SMS, family ties, Internet, and word of mouth.

Music and art, although gripped by the Party, are not understood by the vast army of clerks whose job it is to make sure artists and musicians conform to the Party line. Not only are artists able to use subtle imagery and symbols to get their points across, they also use raw, emotional images to get to that which can never be censored: the gut.

Musicians hold concerts in dingy bars, outdoor arenas, and universities that attract large numbers of young Chinese. Punk rockers, hip hop kids, trance and house enthusiasts they all show up to dance the night away and define themselves through their music and dress. The police are often in attendance, but they are clueless as to what the lyrics, dress code, or code of cool might mean. They stand next to group of weed-smoking, Zack de la Rocha-quoting, freestyle MCs and help light the joint. The youth are far ahead of the cops and clerks who are there to control them.

An underground culture flourishes here uncensored because the Party does not speak "underground." These young kids are actually following in the footsteps of older, experienced rebels who have been getting their music via satellite since the early 1980s. The Tiananmen movement was the culmination and climax of an underground scene that exploded onto China after the opening up of 1979. The "survivors" did not go away. They didn't stop digging on good music and searching for good art, they just got smart about it.

There is a tacit understanding between the people of underground many of whom have now grown rich by selling their art and movies to the French, Swedish, and Canadian galleries that love them that as long as the underground does not challenge the political power of the Party, things can remain cool. As long as the Party feels it is "stable," then the artists, bloggers, cabbies, and young rebels throwin' up rebel graffiti on government-sponsored walls can go about their business. In fact, letting them do their thing actually helps keep the country stable.

When you imagine China's public discussion landscape, do not envision a bland, gray expanse of Party doublespeak. Instead, think of an endless gopher field with a few guys in suits running around wielding clubs. For foreigners, not being able to log onto Wikipedia or BBC or some other site that is blocked for the time being might be very inconvenient and sinister. But in China, not only is the blanket familiar, but everyone has a flashlight on underneath.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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