Democracy is not a foreign word

My following article appears in the Amnesty International Australia’s Uncensor campaign about human rights in China:

We ignore the diversity of China’s web community at our peril, writes Antony Loewenstein

Is the West afraid of Chinese patriotism? Some Chinese bloggers think it is but remain aware of the ways in which such sentiments could be misunderstood around the world. One wrote:

“…I love the country, and fervently so. But regardless of how passionately patriotic I am, my goal is to see China be able to continue its economic development, social stability, and continuous political reforms so as to keep up with the times…This is what worries me every time I see patriotism rising up again, wondering if it will completely ruin international relations. Will it ruin our economic growth?”

A recent survey indicates that many Asian citizens are sceptical of China’s growing economic and social power. The conductors of the survey wrote: “Clearly, China is recognised by its neighbours as the future leader of Asia, but its rise does not mean US influence is waning.”

Despite these fears, however, the news last week that President Hu Jintao communicated with some of China’s 230 million netizens was a unique example of what few other world leaders would ever do. Can you imagine a US President or Australian Prime Minister spending time online with voters? “Political liberalization” is starting to occur in China.

The regime is undoubtedly parading a schizophrenic face to the world, both talking about freedom during the Beijing Games but also increasingly tightening the censorship screws. And too much of Western criticism of China ignores the role of multinationals such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft in the filtering process. Chinese-based firms are now working to assist these companies in managing unruly blog coverage or bad PR.

Of course internet censorship is continuing and there are no signs that this will cease anytime soon. Police brutality is worsening, too. A recent conference in Hong Kong tried to place this phenomenon in context and featured countless speakers who wished the Western media wouldn’t portray the Chinese people as oppressed netizens looking for liberation. There is not one single narrative to describe the Chinese internet experience and although the country maintains the world’s most sophisticated web filtering system, many users are able to debate online far more freely than before the technology’s arrival. In other words, progress is in the eye of the beholder.

On the ground, however, many of China’s citizens are paying a high price for “social harmony.” Tibetans are struggling to cope with “re-education” classes and heightened repression. An ABC reporter was allowed a brief visit this week to witness the shortened torch relay through Lhasa but he was able to gauge little from the stage-managed events. Some journalists are finding a way into restricted lands, such as the Sydney Morning Herald’s Mary-Anne Toy:

“In a meadow of blue and white irises in the nomadic grasslands of Gansu, which along with much of the neighbouring province of Qinghai formed the Tibetan kingdom of Amdo before it became part of China, three young monks arrive for an assignation. They have secretly left the Labrang monastery in Xiahe, the biggest and most influential outside of Lhasa, to meet the Herald.

“’We will never regret what we have done, even if we die, because what we are doing is for the sake of the Tibetan people,’ says one, aged 30.

“They want the return of the Dalai Lama, the release of the 11th Panchen Lama (kidnapped by the Chinese in 1995) and for Tibet to be governed by Tibetans, he says.”

Beijing will be able to navigate its way through the August Games and claim the world vindicated its tough stance against any designated troublemakers. But after the fanfare dies down, China will have experienced a year of almost unparalleled negative press.

Where to from there?

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