China’s Information Clampdown is Wrong. So is the Way We Think About It

A little over a year ago, Beijing appeared ready to banish journalists from several Western news services, including the New York Times. The annual renewal of their credentials, which took much longer than usual to process, came little more than a week before these reporters would have had to leave the country. The newspapers affected, and many others, covered the story with near outrage.

This year, it’s China’s disruption of VPNs (virtual private networks), which use encryption technology to connect those online in China to content that’s behind the country’s Internet firewall.

We in the West have again got very upset. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Helen Gao, a graduate student of East Asian Studies at Harvard University, wrote that “Chinese censors’ commitment to this seemingly hopeless enterprise has created a dire reality that imprisons each of its citizens.” The Economist called the blocking of VPNs a “serious disruption to many Chinese users, who wish to heed the government’s call to boost innovation and who need to collaborate with foreign colleagues in business or academia.”

I spent 11 years studying and working as a journalist in China, in several stints stretching from 1992 to 2007. There wasn’t much that didn’t change over that period. I watched entire neighbourhoods of grimy post-communist housing blocks transform into five-star hotels and translucent shopping malls featuring Louis Vuitton and Bose. Bicycles gave way to cars. Dimly lit tuck shops selling shampoo packets and watermelon seeds were replaced by Carrefour and Walmart. One thing didn’t change: as wealth boosted standards of living, Beijing continued to crack down on dissent and limit the activities of journalists.We in the West have again got very upsetThroughout, I maintained the same mistaken assumption that politicians in the West make when it comes to confrontations with the world’s most populous country: China just needs time. Time to understand that the West’s long struggle into an era in which authorities respect and promote principles that apply universally is the path that China will need to take. Time to accept that no one is above the law. Time to see the Enlightenment era’s idea of basic human rights as being part of something the West calls Natural Law.

Today I’m not so sure. It wasn’t until I took a break from journalism to attend graduate school in Canada that I realised my assumptions might be wrong. One of my professors pointed out how few people in the world enjoy the human rights that intellectuals of the Western world insist should exist universally as part of a natural order. These rights are neither “natural” nor “universal,” he would say.

Critics of Western society can point out how poorly universal rights and responsibilities are applied in North America. There are too many instances where we come up short, from Guantanamo to the Snowden affair to the bailing out of the financial sector out with taxpayer funds, while many ordinary retirees saw their nest eggs busted. How does that square with Western principles?

Chinese and Western cultural contexts are incommensurable

As for China, it’s not as though the country’s citizens don’t want justice, but the cultural reference points are very different from our own. Sinologist Joseph Needham described Chinese cosmology, enshrined in classic Confucian texts, as “an ethical solidarity of the universe,” in which eclipses, the change of seasons, government policy and actions as mundane as eating must be seen in the same context.

Feudal lords may have had more rights than farmers, but most citizens of the former fiefdoms that now comprise China understood that disaster befalls rulers who allow their subjects to starve.

It’s not that China is governed by these principles today but rather that the cultural foundations are totally different to those that underpin Western liberal democracy.

The sooner we in the West understand this, the easier it will be for us to work out why the country’s current leadership responds differently to events to how our own governments might.

Put another way, many citizens in China wonder why Western leaders prattle on so much about human rights when they aren’t even applied in the countries they govern.

In many ways, the Chinese and Western cultural contexts are incommensurable because those who understand one way of thinking have no way to evaluate another because the units of measure and reference are completely different.

Cultural foundations are totally different to those that underpin Western liberal democracy A critique of China’s approach to news and information must start by using the assumptions common in Chinese culture. Information now may be almost as important as food and water but everyone in China knows what happens to leaders who let subjects starve.

What is more, we are too quick to judge China when the free flow of information and the media are far from perfect back home.

Take the protocol introduced Stephen Harper’s administration in Canada by requiring scientists employed by the government to get official permission to speak to the media. Maclean’s magazine quoted Jeff Hutchings, a former government biologist, now a Killam chair at Dalhousie University as saying the edict is “like an Iron Curtain has been drawn across the communication of science in this country. And I think there’s reason for all of us to be worried about that.”

We have been As compliant as the vast majority of Chinese citizens

We have been just as compliant about the gag in Canada as the vast majority of Chinese citizens have been about information controls in their country.

What is more, whether it’s because of our own cultural foundations or cold hard economics, for every journalist forced to leave China, there are hundreds in North America who are shown out the newsroom door.

When my local newspaper the Globe and Mail puts anything that suggests nudity on its home page, the clicks far exceed those on important stories that take weeks or months to research. That’s why items like “Margot Robbie Talks About What It’s Like to be Naked” gets prominent placement on the newspaper’s website for weeks, while reports like this one by Janet McFarland and Jeff Gray about unscrupulous investment managers preying on retirees cycles off within hours.

Our own newsrooms face their own existential pressures, and while the emergence of blogging has opened up and improved public scrutiny of those in power, it still takes a newsroom to blow the lid off the ugliest of scandals.

This is not an apology for how China deals with the media. The plight of journalists locked out of China disturbs me because the country where I spent much of my life benefits when journalists work to uncover corruption, institutional overreach, and illegal activity. And China’s approach to the media emboldens leaders in other countries to adopt similar tactics.

But China is a country of more than 1.3 billion people, many very aware of the information void they face. It’s up to them to figure out what sort of government they want. Expressions of concern from the West ring hollow, particularly when our own affairs are far from perfect.

Robert lives in Toronto where he writes for the Financial Times. He was Beijing Bureau Chief for Bloomberg News from 2004-07

More about the author

About the author

Robert has been a journalist and editor in Beijing and Toronto for publications including The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News, and Financial Times. 

Follow Robert on Twitter.

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