Why Bloggers’ Rights?

February 24, 2009

China is a Big Bad Censorship Machine. Members of the “Fifty Cent Party” get paid fifty Chinese cents a pop (a little more than a nickel, American) to post pro-Chinese comments on the web. Companies are told they must self-censor, or else get kicked out of the Chinese market. Questionable cell phone SMS messages get blocked on the fly.

Despite this rep, in my time living in China I found that English-language content was generally accessible. Even if CNN.com did not work, I could always find the article elsewhere- it might be a little slow, but I could do it.

But as a foreigner I legally had to register my location with the government once I was there for over 24 hours, and I could not use an internet café without handing over my passport. A friend of mine was teaching English for the summer near Tibet and living with a local family. His host-mother had to go to the province’s capital to take the annual standardized test for her low-level government position, and when there was taken out of the testing room and told that a) the government knew a foreigner was living with her family and b) they were monitoring all internet and communications from her town. She understood.

Now, it can be argued that most of the actually censorship the government does is passive; people know the government COULD be monitoring what they are doing at any time, so only the most reckless do anything blatantly anti-Chinese (synonymous with “anti-government” in China) online or by SMS. And many Chinese people have been found to actually WANT the government to control some of what they see, in much the same way that governments in the West, like Australia, have proposed nationally-sanctioned internet censorship. Parents don’t want their kids looking at porn, and people don’t want to know the information they read is correct (“correct” is, of course, a complicated idea).

But we often tend to overlook a very serious point when talking about China: many Chinese people love their country. Nicholas Kristof posted a piece to his NYT blog about Grace Wang, the Duke student, “who tried to encourage dialogue between pro-Tibet protesters and pro-China protesters. Grace is from China, and bloggers there perceived her as betraying her country and siding with Tibetan independence. The result was a nationalist explosion on the Chinese web, with people posting her parents’ home address and comments that came across as threatening. Her parents abandoned their home for reasons of safety.”

He concludes the post with the hope that, “more Chinese intellectuals will speak out against this nationalism.”

The six pages of responses in the comments section were particularly illuminating. The overwhelming reason given for the very high level of pro-Chinese nationalism is “China-bashing” in the Western media, and Western biases against China in general. The debate going on in this comment section addressed almost any issue one could think of
regarding this issue.

When looking at China’s situation, the facts must be clear. We are dealing with a country that, like much of the world, is concerned about the effects of de-centralized media. China has responded with a harsh stance, but they have a right to. And Chinese people are proud of China’s recent economic growth, and want to feel they have power and a voice in the international community. The movement for rights to free speech in China cannot come from outside of China. The movement has to be embraced by the people, not just the bloggers. What the Chinese government does by jailing bloggers is, in effect, separate the political activists from the rest of the people. This gap must be bridged, and one way to start is by affording bloggers more rights.

-Matt Nix

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