China is far from perfect, but the west is demonizing it just when the country is making the most progress
Daniel A Bell
April 2, 2008
John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, first published in 1859, is the most influential defence of free speech ever written. What is less well known is that Mill worried more about "public opinion" than about state censorship. As Mill puts it, the tyranny of public opinion is "more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself". Yes, he was writing in Victorian England and our time may not be as conformist. But it's worth asking if his worries are still relevant today. My own experience writing about China suggests that it depends on the context. Today, Mill's thesis is right about the west but wrong about China.
In China, it will come as no great surprise that the heavy hand of state censorship is the biggest problem. Chinese translations of my own books have been approved for publication, but they are being held up because the material is too "sensitive". Actually, I'm not a free speech fundamentalist. I made and OK-ed revisions so that the book would get through the political censors. I'm perfectly willing to rewrite an argument in a somewhat roundabout or indirect way if that's what it takes for my writings to see the light of day. I'm even willing to cut an argument or an example if it's not central to the main thesis. But, apparently, these cuts have not been sufficient. First I was told that we'd have to wait until after the 17th party congress held last October, because it's best not to rock the boat during party congresses, held every five years. This year, the need for stability during the Olympics means that writers must be "cautious". Who knows what it will be next year?
I should say that publishers and editors in China are on my side and want my books to be published. But they must get approval from party apparatchiks, elderly revolutionary comrades who may not share modern ideas about the importance of free intellectual exchange. Why are they given power to make decisions? I'd argue the traditional value of respect for the elderly still plays an important role. This makes me optimistic about the future: things should improve once the relatively openminded new generation of leaders occupy more positions of power. That might take a couple of decades, though glasnost-like signals from the top would help to speed things up.
In western countries, by contrast, the real threat comes from public opinion. Certain public prejudices make some stories more newsworthy than others, and those stories further reinforce those prejudices. Consider the way that China is demonised in the western press. A social critic beaten up by local thugs is bound to make the headlines in dozens of newspapers (one rarely hears about such occurrences in Uzbekistan, Eritrea, or India). I do not mean to suggest that such facts are unimportant. It's especially important for western reporters to write about them, since Chinese reporters can rarely do so. But if that's all people read (or want to read) about China, they will get a very skewed picture of what's happening in a country of 1.3 billion people that is undergoing the most rapid and comprehensive social transformation in the history of mankind.
How many people in the west know that hundreds of millions of Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty? That the majority of Chinese citizens have personal freedoms almost unimaginable 30 years ago? That the Chinese government learned not to overreact to provocations from Taiwanese pro-independence forces, thus paving the way for better relations with Taiwan? That the party has implemented mechanisms for relatively smooth transitions of political power, including mandatory retirement ages for leaders? That European human rights groups are working with the Chinese authorities to reduce the incidence of torture in police investigations? That implementation of the death penalty has been substantially curtailed of late? Or that the official newspaper China Daily recently printed a photo of two young Chinese men in the throes of a passionate kiss in a pro-queer piece headlined Pride and Prejudice?
Over the past year, the litany of bad news coming out of China - the poisonous foods and medicines, exploitation in factories and deaths in mines, pollution in Beijing, etc - has shaped and reinforced negative perceptions about China to the point that absurd comparisons between the "genocide" Olympics in Beijing and the "Nazi" Olympics in Berlin can get lots of airplay (a better comparison would be the 1988 Olympics held under an authoritarian regime in Seoul). Does anybody seriously believe that China will launch a world war after the Olympics, like the Nazis did after their Olympics? And where's the racism that was so central to Nazi ideology? Yes, the Chinese government is indirectly implicated in the killings in Darfur but it's not alone - Russia sells more weapons to Sudan, and Japan buys more oil - and arguably, it's working to improve the situation. Yes, it oppresses the Tibetan people and any political solution needs to involve the Dalai Lama, though he has not always been politically realistic in the past.
But one might have thought that the recent killings of Chinese civilians and burning of Chinese shops had punctured the idealised view of peace-loving Tibetans in the western mind, yet the riots and the subsequent crackdown seem to have hardened western opinion against China, with growing calls to boycott the Olympics even though the Dalai Lama himself has argued against it. I've received emails from western friends asking me about the oppressive atmosphere in China, as though the whole country is under military siege. Anything positive about China leads to accusations about being an "apologist" for the regime. Once in a while, a story that attempts to provide some context or balance gets placed in the western press, but they are drowned out by the daily drumbeat of hostile reports.
Why do I worry about the one-sided reporting in western countries? It's not just that the "nattering nabobs of negativity" reinforce public fears about China that occasionally seem to border on racism, with Chinese influence viewed as inherently malevolent unless it conforms to western values and practices. Such reporting actually makes things worse in China, stoking up crude nationalist responses and making the government more paranoid. It also detracts from thinking about pragmatic solutions to problems. There are progressive forces within the Chinese Communist party - a huge organisation with 73 million members - and those forces should not be dismissed out of hand. For example, the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao has toned down rhetoric towards the Dalai Lama and left the door open for negotiations.
Most worrisome, the trend to demonise China plays right into the hands of rightwing militarists looking for another excuse to test their weapons. As the Atlantic correspondent James Fallows writes, "the same people - same individuals, same organisations, same publications, same blog sites - that ginned up a war with Iraq, and that have supported ginning up a war with Iran, are settling in for a longer-term confrontation with China." If John McCain becomes the next US president, such people will be welcomed at the White House and they will be supported by public opinion and hostile reporting about the new "Evil Empire". That is really scary.