A little more on the Chinese censorship of Obama's speech

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Maybe it's the jet lag. Maybe it's the culture shock of being back in DC for the first time in a year. Maybe it's my inborn crabbiness. Whatever the source, I find myself more more incredulous with each passing hour that Chinese media authorities could have thought it as necessary or smart to censor live coverage of an event being watched intently in every other corner of the world: the inaugural address of America's first black president and current champion orator.

I have been trying to think: in what other country might this occur? Burma, perhaps. North Korea, no doubt. Perhaps other tinhorn states. But a real, important, powerful, rich country that in many ways (eg, finance) is America's most important partner? It is almost literally incredible.

It's all the more surprising because of something that might not be obvious to the average US viewer. I have met a lot of Chinese people in the last few years, in lots of stations of life. Big shots, farmers, dissidents, factory workers, party bosses. And I cannot think of a single one of them who would have been put off his or her feed by hearing a new American president talk about the virtues of dissent or America's struggle against Communism. Even if they don't agree with those sentiments themselves (and many would agree), all of them know that this is the way  Americans talk and think. How on earth could it seem threatening to hear an American president talk about basic American beliefs?

Here is the "there must be an explanation" explanation. As I tried to explain in this recent article in the Atlantic, the people in charge of China's propaganda apparatus are among the least worldly and most rigid-minded people in the entire country, with absolutely the least feel for how people in other countries might react or think. So apparently some of these ignoramuses considered it a good and prudent idea to cut off Obama -- even if the vast majority of their fellow citizens would consider such paranoia to be extreme and bizarre. Also, within a part of the government where orthodoxy is everything, an official takes no risks by being too hard-line, but could get in trouble by being too permissive. Still; it is an incident whose importance may grow as time goes on. They couldn't even stand to hear Barack Obama speak!

After the jump, in the same spirit as the previous post, a couple of interesting reactions on this theme from people in and around China.  Maybe this will all make sense to me when I catch up on my sleep.
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1) From someone who works in a major Western publishing house and has requested that I vague up the specific names and references below, though I know what the real names are:

I have a little anecdote regarding [a popular but vaguely dissident Chinese author]. We just got copies in of his latest book, and naturally, I wanted to send the author some copies, especially since he would like to give free copies to reviewers in [major Chinese city], where he will be for some kind of conference. His agent asked me to send the copies directly to his [other major Chinese city] address by express mail, instead of to her, which is my normal practice.

Imagine my surprise when, half a week later, the box was sent back to me, ripped open and marked "Return to Sender", with the reason listed as "Receiver refused package." I spoke to [the author's] agent to ask if he had simply not been in the building on the recorded date of delivery, but she said he had been waiting for it, and had therefore been inside all day. Perhaps this is all just a UPS error--what do you think? [My suggested answer here.]

I know [this book] was banned in China when it was initially published, but isn't it quite popular now? ... Would there be any reason for these to be shipped back? [No "good" reason.]

2) From an American with experience in China:


I too just returned from China and I too am depressed to find how readily one accepts what one cannot change.  The thing that I found depressing is not just that I accepted it, but that, generally speaking, I did not perceive how obnoxious it was.  Living in China, and becoming familiar with their system, I am beginning to understand that the freedoms we enjoy in the United States are not a natural state of affairs, that our "basic" freedoms are a tremendous cultural achievement (achieved long before I was born), and not to be obtained and then just protected.


I think what you started to write about regarding the effectiveness of the Firewall being enhanced by its unpredictability somehow gets at some larger issue here.  This inability to see clearly where the lines are drawn make it harder to plan and harder to fight in a way.  It is harder to maintain opposition to such a vague oppression.  It really is someone else arbitrarily exercising power over you.  And moreover it is incredibly effective.  I think the capriciousness and the unpredictability are quite intentional in many cases.  In some cases clearly it is just bureaucratic bumbling and ham-handedness (as youhave pointed out) and general messiness and disorganization. But Ithink the day the Communist Party starts explaining itself too clearly setting transparent rules (however restrictive those rules may be) is the day the lose their grip on power.

I think it is the unpredictable aspect, the opaqueness that angers me most.  In part because it in effect says "I dont have even have to explain to you why I am doing what I am doing" and in part because it is so damn effective.  If it is intentional, it is quite clever.  A more strict but clearer system would be easier to fight against.  As it is, perhaps the only sane response to the unpredictability is a kind of passivity.  It's like trying to punch at smoke....

The truth is, as an American, I have done nothing to help build, create or strengthen our system.  The farthest I have gotten is having cultivated a personal appreciating for how lucky I am and a willingness to take advantage of my freedom to be, do and say what I want without facing unnecessary consequences.  After living in China, I now think freedom is a vigorous enterprise on an individual level, and that responsibility ultimately falls on the individual to keeping increasing his experience of freedom.  But that way of thinking is a luxury, and it is one I did not earn.  One can hardly think like this in a system like that in China today.

This is an extremely rich topic with more discussion to come.


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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