Recently I've mentioned a run of ham-handed media control efforts by the information ministry here. They're mainly related to the Olympics, and they're mainly efforts to keep up an all-good-news premise.
All along I've felt like adding a balancing note that is obvious on scene but probably isn't in the United States. (Or, reinforcing an argument I made earlier.) The reason I've called these efforts clumsy and misguided is not simply that they backfire so badly in affecting Western perceptions of China. It's also that, in a way not so apparent from outside China, they're unrepresentative of the way most life, most of the time, seems here.
In a few obvious ways, life in China is very tightly and unforgivingly controlled. The three tightest areas, by anyone's reckoning, would be: media; political organization or criticism; and public gatherings or demonstrations. What these have in common is that they represent potential challenges to the authority and legitimacy of the Communist Party. On that issue there is no sense of humor and practically no leeway.
There are other realms of control, to be itemized some other time. But overall, there are not nearly as many as most outsiders would assume.
Is the central government monitoring everyone's movements, thoughts, and contacts? It certainly does not look that way. Does the citizenry scurry away when a uniformed officer approaches? In big cities, people ignore the policeman directing traffic and seem fearless about arguing jaw-to-jaw with the one who tries to give them a ticket. (Yes, of course, authorities suppress tens of thousands of protests per year.)
Do average Chinese people feel apprehensive about dealing with foreigners? Many did, when I was here in the mid-1980s. These days, I have absolutely zero sense of people tensing up or looking over their shoulder to see who might be hearing what they say. Their main question seems to be: how will we communicate with this foreigner? On the whole they're more flexible than many other people in working out a way to get the meaning across. (In part this is because the Chinese themselves speak mutually-incomprehensible languages, another subject for another day.) Is their attitude to Americans colored by the worldwide unpopularity of current US foreign policy? Not that I have experienced. Indeed, this is the least anti-American country I have been in for years.
Political-theorist types tell us that the the world has never before seen exactly this combination of selectively tight political controls and generally open economic competition. I personally have never before encountered this combination of on-high control amid everyday good humor and openness. Again, that's why the clumsy attempts at censorship are so unfortunate. They make outsiders think that the culture is closed in a way it isn't.