Earthquakes, Twitter and compassion

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

The horrific Chinese earthquake has focused the world’s attention on human suffering, but censorship issues were never far from the surface, writes Antony Loewenstein.

The devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province last week shifted the global focus away from the Beijing Olympics. The regime must be pleased.

Initially, the government sprung into action and allowed the media to report relatively freely about the tragedy. As the New York Times wrote:

“”¦If China manages to handle a big natural disaster better than the United States handled Hurricane Katrina, the achievement may underscore Beijing’s contention that its largely non-ideological brand of authoritarianism can deliver good government as well as fast growth.”

The domestic leg of the Olympic torch relay was scaled back – after massive online protest – a sure sign that officials were sensitive to public sentiment. Even Premier Wen Jiabao was idolised as a hero for taking a personal interest in the rescue effort (though let’s not forget the far-worse humanitarian crisis in Burma.)

The latest news of the quake was sent via blogs, websites and mobile phones. The mini-blogging tool Twitter was also essential in piecing together the calamity. “The Great Firewall” was showing signs of partial collapse. Some Chinese intellectuals praised the regime for its prompt response.

Soon enough, however, the regime reverted to form, “ensuring that what news does get out is patriotic and uplifting”. China’s chief of propaganda visited the official news agency Xinhua and the CCTV network to inform them of the proper angles of coverage. All major websites were ordered to temporarily close for three days of mourning.

Unsurprisingly, other issues have been ignored, such as Tibet. The role of the Dalai Lama – seemingly caught between appeasing the ever-increasing demands of his younger flock and managing never-ending global adulation – remains central to resolving the crisis. There are growing concerns, however, that his pacifist stance has achieved little in the last decades.

The monks in Tibet itself remain defiant yet terrified. New York Times Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who covertly entered restricted areas, heard reports of Chinese-led brutality. “There won’t be any more protests before the Olympics,” one monk said. “People are just too scared. The pressure is too great.”

Dissenting voices do exist, including this recent essay by a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Zi Zhongjun bravely wrote:

“It’s the 21st Century, and things around us have made great progress. Chinese people have studied the American general elections quite carefully”¦The countries around us in southeast Asia, including Vietnam, are already out in front. Korea was originally an autocracy, but they’ve crossed that barrier. Russia, regardless of its many problems, or whether people are saying Putin is pulling back rights, they can’t return to the past; they’ve already crossed that barrier.

“Our democracy hasn’t yet crossed that barrier. It’s hard to push forward now. Even if a truly great leader wanted to push forward, it would still be difficult, because so many people with vested interests are blocking it, and there are obstacles both horizontal and vertical at the lower levels. I think the only thing to do is open up public opinion and let that healthy power express itself”¦If we cannot open up supervision by public opinion in a timely fashion, who knows what will happen next.”

One of the great untold stories in the rise of China is the collusion between US defence contractors and local security services in building a high-tech police state. Canadian writer Noami Klein recently returned from mainland China and painted a picture of a future closer than we may think.

“China today”, she argued, “represents a new way to organize society. Sometimes called ”˜market Stalinism,’ it is a potent hybrid of the most powerful political tools of authoritarian communism — central planning, merciless repression, constant surveillance — harnessed to advance the goals of global capitalism.”

It is already being exported to a variety of countries around the world, including the West. Let’s not forget this when our officials routinely criticise the human rights abusers residing in Beijing.