Free speech, Beijing-style

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

One-party rule is here to stay, but cracks are starting to appear, writes Antony Loewenstein.

For anybody thinking of attending the Beijing Games, China this week announced, in Chinese, the rules of the game. Religious or political banners are banned, presumably aimed at protestors keen to highlight the plight of the Tibetans, Sudanese or Uighurs.

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, added his wishful thinking to the announcement: “A person’s ability to express his or her opinion is a basic human right and as such does not need to have a specific clause in the Olympic Charter because its place is implicit.” I look forward to Mr. Rogge forcefully advocating the rights of the Dalai Lama during the track and field events.

None of these human rights concerns is overly worrying many of the Olympic corporate sponsors, however. “We think the Beijing Olympics will be a great success”, said a General Electric spokeswoman. The key aim is to lure the millions of newly rich Chinese citizens. New customers are for the taking.

The consumerism of the Chinese population is routinely misunderstood. Greater economic freedom is largely not leading to stronger demands for political rights. John Lee, in a paper released last week by the conservative think-tank the Centre for Independent Studies, perfectly articulates what I discovered during my investigations in China last year:

“The rise of an alternative to the Western liberal model of development – the so-called Beijing consensus – has been the unexpected consequence of China’s rise and is proving a difficult ideational challenge for the West. Where once we placed our hopes on the me generation to push for political change, we must now confront the fact that China’s young elites believe working within a one-party state is the better bet for their and the country’s future.”

While dissent from the party line is now far more easily read thanks to the internet, most netizens are happy to meet boys and girls online, talk to friends, watch movies and buy products. Democratic reform is the furthest thing on their minds, either through inertia, happiness or fear. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s recent entry into Facebook land is merely a clever ploy by the regime to seem in touch with the mood of the young.

What is changing in China, on a fundamental level, is the rise of crowd-sourcing, the growing phenomenon of online crowds gathering through blogs, bulletin boards, chat rooms and instant messaging. The Sichuan earthquake has provided a recent example. China Supertrends blog explains:

“The human search engine has been operating in China, for good and for ill, for at least a year or two already. We profiled several such instances in our book, such as the Kitten Killer of Hangzhou and the infamous Chinabounder blog, both of which involved an intensive human-assisted search that sometimes bordered on a lynch-mob mentality. There are numerous other cases: The South-China Tiger photogate and, in 2008, the misidentification of an Olympic torch relay protester, the 1970’s-style ’struggling against’ a Chinese student studying in America, and the ”˜I (Heart) China’ movement that spread like wildfire over MSN to millions of Chinese users in two days.”

These developments, while not radically challenging the ruling elite, is gradually eroding the power of the state and increasing the power of individuals to act together with others. How such moves may affect the mass arrival of Facebook in China remains to be seen.

Overall, like most leading powers, Beijing is happy to use the “war on terror” rhetoric against real and perceived enemies. In the lead-up to the August Games, expect peaceful protests to be viewed as a threat to the one-state ideal. We can gently encourage the regime to understand that such moves only demean its claims of becoming a truly modern state.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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