Letter from China: Big Brother is playing a game he can’t win

Howard W. French The New York Times
THURSDAY, JANUARY 12, 2006 – Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SHANGHAI When Zhu Yonghong, a Hangzhou journalist, posted an item on his Web site related to the recent sacking of the editor of one of the capital’s most aggressive newspapers, and the subsequent walkout by much of the reporting staff, he trod a fine line.
Using allusive language that referred to a ”Prague Spring,” and to the Milan Kundera novel ”The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” he invited his readers to contemplate recent events in China on his Web site ? something the newspaper editors would never allow in their pages.
But he did so with a warning against speaking too directly, or straying into forbidden political territory; for example explaining how the Prague Spring ended, in 1968, with an armed attempt (that ultimately failed) by the Soviet Union to restore Stalinism to a liberalizing client state.
All Zhu’s precautions were in vain. After objections from the administrator, he moved his blog to another Web provider, and finally changed his tune altogether. Interviewing him by telephone this week bore a painful resemblance to talking with a prisoner of war who had just emerged from a terrifying session in a tiny, dark cell, with water steadily falling on his head one drop at a time ? in other words, from a brainwashing.
Gone was any hint of inflection or irony ? except perhaps the unintended. ”I think the Chinese government welcomes diversified information because they’ve got their own Web site and bulletin boards to broadcast information,” he said. ”The government hopes for the media to push reform.” The Chinese government is ”not neutral or uneasy” about the emergence of the Internet as an alternative source of news, he added for good measure. ”It welcomes it.”
In Zhu’s curious new upside-down universe, welcoming things sometimes means wiping them out, as happened to the site of another well-known blogger who wrote about the events at The Beijing News, Zhao Jing, or Michael Anti by pen name, only to have his site shut down. Anyone who remembers bombing villages in order to save them will instantly savor the perversity of this logic.
Tiny short-term victories in China’s own national domestic pacification campaign obscure a larger truth. In today’s world, the effort to corral 1.3 billion Chinese and to sharply restrict their freedom of _expression is a fool’s game. The best that can be said about it is that it is an enormous waste of energy. The worst is that the increasingly desperate efforts of censors are deeply harmful to China itself, not because they are a setback to any American pipe dream that China will become Westernized through the magic of capitalism, but harmful to China in an absolute sense, in the country’s own terms. By now almost everyone knows the theory that like many places before it, as China grows richer and per capita incomes rise, its citizens will demand a greater say in how they are governed, including first of all the freedom to speak and associate freely.
Nobody knows how or even whether this theory will be borne out, as it already has in countries all around China’s perimeter, like South Korea and Taiwan. What can safely be said is that in China a lively frontier of social and intellectual ferment that foreshadows the direction of the society as a whole is presently occupied by journalists and other kinds of commentators in the new media, and their numbers only stand to grow.
I still have powerful memories from the discovery as a child of the tyranny of literacy. Riding in the back of the family car on trips, once I had learned how to I found there was no way to avoid reading billboards and road signs that popped into view.
In the end, Beijing will not prove any more capable of stopping people from thinking and communicating their thoughts in real time about matters that are important to them, especially not in the age of the Internet. One small caveat: if somehow they can, they’ll destroy the country in the process, and gut much of the breathtaking progress made here in the last generation. Smart and talented people will always prefer to live in and wager their futures on places where they can think and speak freely. But just because emigration represents the ultimate option to China’s best and brightest, who will always be welcome in the universities and corporate labs and boardrooms of the world, does not mean resistance here will fizzle. For whatever the bad news of the week or month in terms of civil liberties in China, Big Brother is actually already shrinking, and the space for personal _expression is expanding ? constantly. By the standards of just five years ago, the availability of information and commentary on the Internet here is mind-boggling.
This is no thanks, of course, to the Chinese government, which is openly hostile to liberalism and to the ideology of individual freedom that goes with it. No thanks go either to shameless big American companies, like Microsoft, Yahoo and others, which help Beijing police the Internet while disingenuously proclaiming that their presence here, whatever their practices may be, is a net positive. I recall virtually identical language from multinationals lusting for profits in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle.
There is an East Asian _expression that explains what’s at work here and why the censor’s job is such a fool’s game. Usually used in a pessimistic context, it goes: ”The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
But if in the Internet age the nails are people with information and opinions who are eager to purvey them, in a fast-moving China, where people are getting richer and thirstier for knowledge, and computers with broadband connections abound, can hammers be made quickly enough?
Don’t expect the hammers to give up, but the nails are pretty tough, and they’re already popping up all over the place. One of them spoke to us, too, and it didn’t sound like the water torture had worked.
Constantly faced with censors’ warnings and service blackouts, Wang Yi bounced his blog around to four different Internet hosts before confronting the problem head-on, threatening to sue. ”I went there with a number of the most prominent rights lawyers,” he said. ”We told the company that we would make a big case. Regardless of whether we win, we want you to pay a big price morally.” Service was restored that afternoon.

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