Free Speech and Censorship

Why am I not surprised that the great firewall was not removed for journalists living in the Olympics journalist housing? Here is the article about it: 

Sports / Olympics
China to Limit Web Access During Olympic Games
Published: July 31, 2008

[To see article click here]

In my opinion, the West just really doesn’t "get it" when it comes to things (like free speech) that are not, and have never been, part of cultures that have no history of democracy.  To even discuss or understand the "free speech" issue in countries that don’t value free speech or democracy the same way as the West, requires that one step outside one’s own particular, very Western, cultural assumptions and viewpoints.  One must recognize that not all cultures value these notions or perceive them the same way, and actually there indeed are other ways of doing things. 

I believe that most people, when thinking about or discussing the issue of free speech, fail to discard their own, biased cultural blinders, whether those blinders point them to the conclusion that all free speech is dangerous or whether they point them to the conclusion that all regulation of speech is bad.  There is legitimacy in both viewpoints.  The truth is probably somewhere in between and varies according to the culture.  I believe that even in order to talk about these things, we really need to recognize our own, personal bias and the possibility that there may be another viewpoint which is equally valid for another culture. 

I think it’s important to recognize that the West’s experience of and thinking about the "discourse of ideas" is over 2,000 years old.  Our own experiment with free speech and self determination began in Athens in about 400 BC (forgive my license with historical facts), continued through the Magna Charta (about 1200 A.D.), and then we should also remember that the U.S. Constitution (with its guarantee of free speech) was a novel and strange idea in the 1700’s. 

In contrast to this, China was ruled by warlords just over a hundred years ago.  There is no 2,000 year old history of democracy, and China has long been a society in which to speak one’s mind could lead to dire consequences.  We in the West need to remember this before we assert that our own ways of doing things or ways of thinking about government are suited to this nation. 

China — along with most of the rest of the non-western world —  continues to be a society not only where information is tightly regulated.  But more importantly than this, I believe the educational system does not prepare people for the risks and benefits of freedom of ideas in the same way that western educational systems are geared to do.  Students are expected to memorize and regurgitate ideas and facts.  They are not trained in how to evaluate thoughts and claims that arise in "the marketplace of ideas".  This is (hopefully) in sharp contrast to students in America, who are taught to take every statement with a grain of salt and evaluate its speaker and origin carefully.  Rather, students in China are expected to accept what they are told at face value and believe it. 

This notion for me was underscored in the novel "The Monkey King" by Timothy Moe (which, though  out of print and difficult to obtain, is one of the books I’ve recommended and linked to in my reading list on this blog).  In one episode in that novel, the uncle is trying to mentor his two young nephews who are in a school in Hong Kong.  The two nephews are quite bright, and he sees they have potential to be very skilled thinkers, so he teaches them to think critically, to question the validity of ideas, and to engage in intellectual repartee at the evening dinner table.  He is very proud of their fast progress.  He encourages them to take this new skill to school and show their teacher.  He imagines that the teacher will be impressed with the young students and coach their skill to a new level. 

But the next day they come home from school with their hands bloodied and wrapped in bandages.  The uncle can’t imagine what happened to his dear nephews.  Thinking it was the result of a play yard skirmish, he asks what happened.  It turns out, their teacher had been so offended by their impertinence in asking questions that he had rapped their knuckles with a ruler and made them bleed.  Not everyone had valued their ability to ask challenging questions!  This illustrates that in that culture, the trait of challenging statements and winnowing them in the market place of ideas was not welcome.  Instead, students were expected and taught to accept the facts they were taught at face value and to memorize them.  I believe it’s still very much the same way today, in all but the very top universities.  (For there is a tiered educational system, with the very top students — and those targeted as future leaders — living by different rules and standards and being trained to more of a western standard.) 

Of course I oversimplify, but in the big picture of things, this also makes the populace easily manipulated by the media, both good and bad, because as a rule the population accepts anything they are told at face value.  As a result of this, the population can be incited to riot by the least bit of inflammatory "news" whether it’s true or not.   The ordinary population, thus, is like a sleeping and dangerous dragon that no one wants to awake from slumber.  I’ve read that the government is highly mindful that the last two regimes have been toppled by peasant revolts and it fears the same.  As a result of this real risk of civil conflagration, then, the media actually must be tightly controlled.  Riots do happen.  They are feared and tightly controlled.  When they happen, cars are overturned, houses are burned, and people get hurt.  In fact, I believe the threat to social harmony is so real that a large amount of censorship is justified. 

So, just as it is a huge oversimplification to chant the mantra "two legs good, four legs bad," it is also a gross oversimplification to assume or assert that pure freedom of the media is always a good thing.  We need to engage in a more sophisticated and thoughtful analysis, all of us on all sides.  Only then can we even begin to communicate or think about these things. 

And that’s FOOD FOR THOUGHT.  I’ll leave it at that. 


In case the article gets blocked,* here’s a very brief excerpt: 

Since the Olympic Village press center opened Friday, reporters have been unable to access scores of Web pages — among them those that discuss Ti*%n issues, T*&%$se independence, the violent crackdown on the protests in T$#@men Sqre and the Web sites of Am**sty International, the BBC’s Chinese-language news, Rad*o Free Asia and several Hong Kong newspapers known for their freewheeling politic*l disco*rse.


*I’m always shocked and pleasantly surprised that NYT is rarely if ever blocked.  My friends speculate that this is mainly due to two factors.  First, one must have a pretty high reading level in a foreign language (English) to read and understand it.  Second, you can’t block everything without making people wonder!   


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