A few weeks ago, a television anchor in Beijing fired off a short message on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, warning readers to watch what they eat. “Text message from an investigative reporter,” Zhao Pu wrote. “Do not eat yogurt (the thick kind) or jelly, especially children. Their contents are truly frightening. I won’t speak about it in detail.”
Microblogs aren’t a great vehicle for delivering investigative reporting, but had this message been sent from a journalist in the U.S., one imagines it would have quickly dissolved into the vast sea of social-media chitchat.
Not so in China.
After the post, Zhao vanished from his television time slot, the China Digital Times reported, and his Weibo message was ultimately deleted by government censors, who also worked to shut down any lingering discussion of the topic by blocking certain search terms on Weibo, including Zhao’s name plus the words “support” or “suspended from duties.”
I recently returned from a visit to cities on China’s heavily populated east coast and couldn’t shake my befuddlement over the nation’s repressive instincts, to say nothing of the breadth and efficiency of its censorship and thought-control operation. (Censoring Weibo, for example, is a full-time endeavor, with new banned words appearing every day in response to controversies the government wishes to suppress.)
China is by no means the worst offender in that vein. The Committee to Protect Journalists this morning released its list of the ten most-censored countries, and China merely earned runner-up status. But the countries on that top-ten list aren’t global economic powerhouses with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council. Which has me scratching my head that a country eager to burnish its international standing would mobilize the full force of its propaganda machine to avoid a modestly embarrassing discussion of lax quality control in the nation’s yogurt supply.
China’s excesses, of course, go well beyond snack food. The recent purge of Communist Party member Bo Xilai, following allegations of his wife’s involvement with the murder of a British businessman, felt like a replay of 1950s Red China intrigue. And in the past several days, paranoid politicians in Beijing and beyond have managed to turn their obsession with a blind dissident lawyer into an international incident.
Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest and made his way 300 miles to the American embassy in Beijing, has become the poster child for China’s self-inflicted public-relations wounds. Chen’s offense, in the eyes of the Party, was representing peasants and other vulnerable citizens, including women forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations. For that, he was imprisoned and subsequently put under house arrest, surrounded by violent guards and cut off from the outside world – or so the government thought – by sophisticated communications-jamming technology. When word got out that Chen was under the protection of the U.S. ambassador, government-friendly news outlets chided the U.S. for meddling, and police forces promptly rounded up those suspected of helping Chen elude his guards.
Naturally, China’s mistreatment of a human-rights activist merely emboldened his supporters and made him an international cause celebre, leading to today’s announcement that U.S. diplomats had apparently brokered a deal for Chen to remain in China – and remain safe.
Did that really require a superpower’s intervention? Is Chen that great a threat to China?
Many of the world’s most repressive regimes have a tenuous hold on their nations, with few alternatives to maintaining their power – to borrow Chairman Mao’s phrase – via the barrel of a gun, as well as a stranglehold on information. But watch Shanghai’s 23 million residents bustling to work and school on a weekday morning, and you’ll be hard-pressed to conclude that the only thing standing between them and violent revolution is unfettered access to Facebook and Wikipedia.
The Communist Party elite may feel it has more to fear from the hundreds of millions of poor farmers and other laborers in western regions of the country. But reliable loyalty from China’s huge population will come from economic prosperity, not repression.
Still, I’m resisting the urge to roll this out as proof of Western supremacy, and Americans shouldn’t be too smug about trumpeting our vastly greater commitment to openness. Instead, it’s worth remembering that no form of government is exempt from the corrupting influence of power, and U.S. politicians have shown signs of the same penchant for controlling information through propaganda and censorship, even if we are no longer subject – as far as we know – to the worst of the government’s COINTELPRO abuses of the late 1960s.
Since 9/11, more and more information has been deemed exempt from Freedom of Information laws on the basis of vague national-security concerns, and the Patriot Act greatly increased the opportunity for the federal government to gather secret intelligence on its citizens.
Recall, too, that in 2002, the Pentagon launched a program to cultivate retired military commanders, many with financial conflicts of interest, and brief them for television appearances where they were presented as independent military analysts, rather than mouthpieces for the administration. The Department of Defense, which fought in court for years to keep details of the program secret, referred to the analysts as “message force multipliers.”
And right now, many Americans have serious concerns that the federal government would use new powers under the proposed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act to snoop on average Americans.
That is not suggest the U.S. has no standing to chastise other nations for human-rights abuses. But self-reflection is always a worthy endeavor. In the end, China’s ill-conceived campaigns against its own citizens – and America’s creep toward government surveillance and secrecy – should serve as a reminder that in every country, freedom, and freedom of information, are rights that require constant vigilance.
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