Monday, 31 October 2011

Back in the Land of the Free Still-Not-Free

Aaaaand we're back. After spending 10 days on a tour of a country we still can't name for legal reasons, but which is popularly known as the Hermit Kingdom, and is currently vying with Syria and Zimbabwe for the title of 'Most Repressive Lunatic Regime, 2011' (after Libya tragically dropped out of the running...).

Lots more to say about that, but first a word about returning to China, after spending time in the Hermit Kingdom. Here's the sad thing: the two regimes have a lot in common.

Admittedly only China can afford computer graphics for its news channel...

At first it seems ridiculous to compare the two - the Hermit Kingdom is a famine-prone basketcase, while China is busily motoring towards global economic supremacy. The Hermit Kingdom has only one TV channel - a low-budget joke spewing stodgy propaganda and 'ideologically pure' drama. Chinese TV, in contrast, has dozens of channels, including a slick English language news channel. The Hermit Kingdom completely bans access to the internet, even for foreigners - while in China, wifi and 3G are everywhere. Etc.

But scratch the surface.

Chinese TV may have dozens of channels - but the government can ban any show, on any channel, at any time - for any reason. Most recently, they pulled the plug on one of China's most popular shows - an X-Factor style talent contest called 'Supergirl'. Their stated reason? "It was too long." The real reason? It encouraged people to vote.

A threat to the Chinese state. Seriously.

But it gets much weirder than that. The Chinese government can ban specific types of plot from all dramas on TV. So this year, they banned all stories involving time travel.

Back to the Western TV Channels ("Great Scott...!")
Their stated reasons for the ban (available here, if you read Chinese) are truly fabulous. Characters travelling back in time "lack positive thoughts and meaning" and portrayal of time travel can "casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation." 

I mean... wow.

In case that all made too much sense, the censors have really warmed to their work, and recently banned all detective dramas and spy thrillers for the next three months, so that viewers could instead enjoy "the dozens of good TV dramas relating to the founding of the [Communist] Party."

But which one do I want to watch?

And then there's the news. With the best will in the world, China's English language news channel is by far the creepiest thing I've seen broadcast in my language, in my lifetime. You're just not used to seeing blatant state propaganda being churned out in English (and if you're about to reply that "the BBC is blatant propaganda, man", then you should probably stop reading this blog and get back to stocking your nuclear bunker with tinned food).

Give the Chinese state broadcasters some credit - they've hired proper Western journalists, and they try incredibly hard to make it sound like a regular news channel (with feisty debates, controversy and so on). But the heavy hand of the government censors editors is everywhere. Sam and I have been collecting our favourite examples of completely-free-and-balanced journalism on the state news channel - but we keep getting angry and having to switch off. Here's our favourite so far:

"So, Tom, are the Occupy Wall Street protesters exaggerating, or do these protests expose the inherent instability of America's capitalist system?" 
"I think they expose the inherent instability of America's capitalist system..."

As for foreign news channels - they are censored, arbitrarily, at any time. Even in a Beijing hotel populated entirely by Western tourists, BBC World News can have the plug pulled at any minute. And it is - regularly. One minute you're watching Jeremy Bowen chattering excitedly about Libya - then the newsreader says 'Meanwhile in Syria - ' and the screen goes blue. Sometimes it stays blue for hours. You have to switch back to Chinese state TV for a dose of propaganda, or else settle in for a drama about the founding of the Communist Party.

"This is the Ten O'Clock News from the BBC..."
Even in the country-we-can't-name-for-legal-reasons, BBC news was broadcast unmolested in foreigners' hotel rooms. In that respect (if in no other), it's a freer place than China.

Then there's the internet. Or rather, there isn't the internet, in the case of the Hermit Kingdom - it just doesn't exist. As our guides told us, without irony, on arriving at a hotel: "On the 2nd floor you will find the International Communications Centre, where you can send a postcard..." The Chinese Communist Party, in contrast, allows the internet to flourish completely unencumbered. Oh, apart from the largest and most technologically advanced censorship operation in the history of humanity. Apart from that it's totally free.

It works like this: the Chinese government has simply banned a bunch of websites on which Westerners blithely enjoy their rights to free speech (Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube), and it's crippled Google as well (if you enter, say, 'jasmine' into Google, you'll find your access denied, and it'll stay denied for quite some time). In their place, the government has allowed Chinese copies of each site (Renren, Weibo, Tudou, etc.) which are broadly similar to their Western counterparts - except that they are policed by tens of thousands of state-employed censors moderators. If free speech exists at all in Chinese blogs, it exists in the hours (or minutes) between the posting of anti-government sentiments, and their deletion.

I'd love to tell you, but the Communist Party won't let me
And it's certainly not just about censorship. The Great Firewall of China has a hulking great fist behind it: according to Amnesty International, China has more imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents than any other nation in the world.

Jiang Zemin - 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress
"We're number one!"

OK, you get the idea - I'll stop ranting (you can probably tell I've been bottling this up for a while). If you're a Facebook-using blogger who likes to watch the news, flying from the Hermit Kingdom to Beijing doesn't feel like returning to a land of freedom. It feels like more of the same.

Oh, and one more thing. Stein's Law says that: "If something can't go on forever, it will stop." Well, from what we can see, the Chinese people are as smart, tech-savvy, feisty and fashion-conscious as anyone in the West. In fact, let's just go ahead and admit it - the next generation of Chinese students is way, way smarter than us.

 This can't go on forever.


  1. Have you watched Outfoxed? Some of the one-eyed reporting and general sneakiness of Chinese state news reminds me of what Fox does (obviously to a much greater extent). A fine example of cultural learning transcending national boundaries...

    Not sure I share your optimism about the future: is there necessarily a correlation between cognitive ability (in relatively mechanical subjects) and moral or idealistic drive? Especially if you've been conditioned from birth? I genuinely don't know. I'd be interested to hear what Chinese folk on the street think about it.

    [Also, are you sure this blog can't be traced back to you (as in the real you)? Would there be any consequences if it was?]

  2. I wanted to plus one this and share it on my Google Plus account. Then I wondered if that would get you thrown into a jail somewhere. And me. And Josh, because he once lived with us...