Gagging Speech

15 December 2008

I just learned today that China has blocked the Britsh Broadcastng Co’s web site ( to see article, click here ).  In a way, this is surprising, because that organization has such a reputable, worldwide reputation.  Yet, in other ways it is not unexpected.

When first went to China in 2004, we could still get the B-BC news broadcast over the air from Hong Kong.  At some point, however, they managed to say something that caused them to be banned from the public airways.  I remember one time, watching the show:  "In New York today, yada yada yada, in London yada yada yada, in Paris yada yada yada, in Amsterdam yada yada yada, in Hong Kong yada yada yada, in Beijing . . . ," then immediately there was a brief period of static, and the show switched to a tour of a washing machine factory.  A few minutes later, the show resumed, "In Seoul, yada yada yada." A few weeks later, the broadcast disappeared altogether, and something else replaced the program in the evening lineup. 

* * *

This difference in free speech is was one of the most noticeable things for me, about public life in China.  It’s not that people don’t protest; they do.  But protests are much more tightly controlled.  One time when we drove by a protest, I noticed that the peaceful band of people holding up signs was surrounded by a battallion of policemen in full riot gear with batons.  Another time, however, I was told that some anti-Japanese protests were actually incited by the government.  When the anti-Japanese sentiment became too strong (with over 100,000 people protesting marching on a street of my city), the media switched its tone to a more moderate line, which effectively quelled the intensity of the protests.  So, public speech and protest is largely controlled and regulated by the government. This entanglement of government in deciding what is permissible speech wouldn’t happen in my native country (or, would it?). 

In the USA, we place a particularly high value on the freedom of speech.  The First Amendment to our constitution states: 

"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble . . . . "

* * *

It’s a messy fact, that free speech can even be embarrassing.  Why would I protect speech that I personally find offensive?  Why would government allow speech that may be false or misleading, or critical of government itself?  The basic theory is that if all ideas are aired, citizens can sort out the facts and choose the course of action of their government accordingly.  We rely on citizens, rather than our government, to sort out truth from fiction.  If government controlled what was said, it would only allow expression of opinions that were not offensive to itself.  Much as the Chinese government is doing now. 

There are different viewpoints and opinions about this elsewhere in the world, however.  Free speech is not valued in some cultures, particularly in cultures which are not so comfortable, for one reason or another, with the messiness inherent in a culture that allows free speech.  It reminds me a bit even of a difference one can observe in parenting style. 

When my first daughter was born, I always kept her very clean and neat.  When I returned to work, I hired as a nanny a woman who was an expert in child development.   She had a two year college degree in early childhood education, and she had worked for many years as a nanny for families in New York City, where she had made her career.  I was only so fortunate to find such a gifted woman to be my nanny because she had recently retired back to her home community in the rural South.   This lady, named Erdell, also agreed to keep the house straight and to have supper ready when I got home from work.  What a treat!  Every day when I came home from work, the baby would have been washed, the house was straight, and supper was ready to go on the table.  I could hardly believe my luck! 

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I arrived home from work an hour early one day, unexpectedly, only to find my precious baby on the floor, clothed in nothing but a diaper.  Newspapers had been laid all around the floor, and she was sitting on them, in the center.  In front of her, there was a full bowl of infant cereal.  She was holding a spoon, playing in the cereal, and she was covered in it.  Not only was she smeared from head to toe in the cereal, it seemed, but it was all in her hair, all over the newspaper, everywhere.  The nanny explained to me that the baby was playing it it, learning how to hold a spoon, learning how to eat with the spoon, and exploring the flavor and texture of the new food. 

Democracy is like this.  It’s messy.  When a culture is learning how to use free speech and democracy, sometimes there is exploration.  The spoon doesn’t always go right into the mouth.  There is a learning process.  Sometimes there are mistakes that need to be cleaned up.  It can feel very uncomfortable to experience and watch this process, perhaps a bit like looking at a baby who is smearing food all in its hair.  But, hopefully, eventually the baby does learn to use the spoon and learns how to feed himself rather than being "spoon fed" all its life. 

Thailand reminds me a bit of this, just now.  The process flows along by fits and starts.  Sometimes a military becomes uncomfortable and seizes power (as did the military in Myanmar), or a government stifles free speech as a means of propelling things in the direction it sees as appropriate (China).  And sometimes it’s hard to distinguish good faith efforts to avert social and governmental catastrophe from bad faith efforts of despots to gain control merely to aggrandize and enrich themselves.  If I were in a position to do so, I would try to reassure governmental leaders in places such as China or Thailand or Malaysia, that so long as violent and intolerant elements are controlled (those who would seize power purely for their own interest), and so long as the country remains governed by rule of law, things will work out. 

Similarly, for Americans looking at world events, I would say, "Take a deep breath.  It’s okay."  The main thing Americans and western Europeans need to remember, I think, is that it’s a mistake to assume that everyone is like ourselves, or that every population has the same degree of readiness for democracy.  I would suggest to both groups, resist the urge to jump in and clean everything up right away.  Resist the urge to arrest protesters.  Resist the urge to demonize those countries where protesters are arrested.  Resist the urge to demonize the protesters.  Resist the urge to manipulate the media.  Don’t worry whether Thailand will fall into chaos.  It won’t; things will settle out.  Even if the process is messy, the baby will eventually learn to use a spoon.   

___________________

For an interesting news article: 

Surveillance of Skype Messages Found in China

By JOHN MARKOFF

Published: October 2, 2008

A Canadian human rights group has uncovered a system that tracks politically charged text messages sent by customers of Tom-Skype, a joint venture of which eBay’s Skype is a partner.

For full text of article, click HERE

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3 Comments

Filed under Cross Cultural Issues

3 responses to “Gagging Speech

  1. Molly

    We have also apparently lost access to ATV World and TVB Pearl, the English language stations broadcasting from Hong Kong. There were two different frequencies for Pearl before: one was fully English, the other is mostly English, but beginning with shows broadcast after 9:30 p.m. the shows are dubbed in Mandarin. The news and commercials are still in English, however. This doesn\’t do much good if you\’re watching something like Monk, but at least if you stay up late you can still get the news. ATV World, on the other hand, also had two versions, an English and Chinese, but the programming is completely different. Since World was the station that carried the David Letterman show, we\’re now minus that. On the other hand, we\’ve also lost Racing to Win, the weekly recap of all the races run in Hong Kong with commentary and analysis. So there\’s an upside to everything! This may not be a censorship issue. Hong Kong has been switching to HDTV for some time now, and it might just be that to accommodate that these stations are now being broadcast on a frequency unavailable to my older, very low definition t.v. It could be. I\’ll be going into my management office this week to see if they know what the problem is. But it could be that one, or both of the stations, offended someone, somewhere once too many times, and for now, we\’re living without. Only time will tell.

  2. Alex

    I looked at the article you refer to. The countries cited have rampant corruption (bribery, blackmail, and even murder commonplace), no legal protection for individuals seeking redress for grievances, and dismal records when it comes to rule of law and abuse of power. Certainly, those in power are not craving democracy but rather power itself. I think most people in the world do, in fact, crave a representative form of government. Or at a minimum, a benign form of government. Government in Russia and India, at this time, is neither representative nor benign, not as a result of democracy but as the result of abuse of power.

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