Never having had an interest in snuff films, nor having been especially interested in seeing the Blair Witch Project before my thirteenth birthday, I have never really been personally confronted by censorship. But in YangShuo we encountered our first hostel that doesn’t break the Great Firewall of China for us. It took me twelve hours (intermittently of course) to break through myself. Now I believe this post is officially coming to you from Viet Nam, or maybe Malaysia.
As much as I’m all for experiencing new things while traveling, I have to say the twelve hours of censorship had me seething. I fully acknowledge that the impact for me is relatively minor, and time limited, but it still really sucks.
First off, the censorship seems entirely capricious: I can access Wikipedia, in all its free speech glory, and I can read all about the conflict in Tibet and the suppression of Falun Gong. But I can’t access some of my preferred airfare search sites. Fiona’s tablet gave her facebook notifications, but should couldn’t access the messages she notified. So, she could see that a good friend had gotten engaged, and was very excited. But she couldn’t see the details.
And it’s facebook for heaven’s sake. It’s a mechanism that plausibly allows someone to say something at odds with the preferences of the Chinese government, but that’s not what the site is for. The odds of a facebook post appearing mischievous through the eyes of a Beijing bureaucrat are far smaller than for this post. And gmail isn’t blocked, but loads incredibly slowly. I’ve read that that is quite plausibly retaliation for google’s (occasional) disinclination to accept censorship laws. I was also, shudderingly, reduced to using bing as a search engine.
I’ve done enough competitive debating to be able to construct a pretty good case for censorship. It’s generally checking speech when it creates harms that outweigh benefits, though it’s often a tough sell. But for the kind of censorship that exists here I feel like the arguments need to start with: “okay, assume individuals don’t have rights” or “assume free speech dangerous”. And, as much of a sophist as I am, I’m just struggling to do that math for the rest of the argumentation.
Fiona spoke with some of her Chinese classmates in Paris about censorship. They seemed broadly nonplussed by the issue, though most got facebook accounts once they got to France. The defence they mounted was that the Chinese population wasn’t ready for free speech, that there was a risk that if they were able to access information freely and without some commentary or mitigation from government, they might get the wrong end of the stick about government policies and kick up a fuss. I suppose you can read a utilitarian perspective into this: prevent riots, maintain economic growth. But I just don’t buy that access to information necessarily leads to social disorder. And, if it does in the Chinese case, then maybe it should.
What am I doing to protest? Well, there’s this post obviously. And the fact that we’ve found a workaround around the Great Firewall. I also intend to eat a lot of dumplings. Take that!