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 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
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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.