What do Winnie the Pooh, an image of an empty chair, and Justin Bieber have in common? They all have been recently banned by Chinese censors. BBC reported that China banned Winnie the Pooh from its social media sites because bloggers have been comparing him to China’s President Xi Jinping.
Since the late Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo’s death, Chinese WhatsApp users complained that Chinese censors blocked their attempts to send images of an empty chair to commemorate Liu in real time. Last but not least, Chinese Bieber fans were told recently by Beijing’s Culture Bureau that the Canadian pop star is banned from having concerts in China due to his “past bad behaviors” which “caused public dissatisfaction.” Thus banning him is necessary to “purify China’s domestic entertainment scene.”
I’d never imagined that Winnie the Pooh, an image of an empty chair, and Justin Bieber would all become symbols of liberty one day. For the last 30 years, while the daily lives of Chinese citizens have dramatically improved, their opportunities for free speech, assembly, and expression haven’t. China’s wealth enables the Chinese government to control information flow, promote propaganda, and monitor and suppress dissent much more efficiently and effectively.
Yes, We’re Watching You
With Communist Party’s leadership reshuffle getting close, Beijing has stepped up its censorship. Banning Winnie the Pooh and Justin Bieber are small potatoes compared to China’s latest crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs), a popular method Chinese use to bypass Chinese authorities’ “Great Firewall.” The most intrusive tool the government deploys is facial recognition technology and iris scanners installed everywhere to keep a watchful eye on the entire Chinese population.
The Wall Street Journal estimated that “China has 176 million surveillance cameras in public and private hands,” and “the nation will install about 450 million new ones by 2020. The U.S., by comparison, has about 50 million.” China’s vast, technology-driven surveillance system has made it easier for the state to arrest political dissidents. The all-seeing “big brother” George Orwell imagined in “1984” has become a reality in China.
During Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Chinese government not only controlled every aspect of each citizen’s life—what to eat, how much to eat, where to live, and what one was supposed to do for a living—but it also demanded full control of every citizen’s mind through thought control. Today the Chinese government no longer decide how much people can eat, but the state has even better control over the Chinese people’s minds.
Government Censorship Leads to Self-Censorship
Not all censorship flows from top-down. Many Chinese citizens and businesses have taken cues from the government and censor themselves. China’s popular video and Internet streaming sites “cleaned” themselves up by voluntarily taking down all foreign films and TV shows, replacing them with government-sanctioned propaganda that glorifies the Communist Party in the name of “social harmony” and “patriotism.”
One livestream showed a young woman host who “dressed in Red Army uniform and filmed herself buying Mao Zedong badges at a gift shop.” China’s information control is so successful that she was probably never told that someone in her family perished during the man-made famine or tortured by Mao’s Red Guards in similar uniforms only four decades ago. Even if she was told the truth, will it change her self-censored behavior?
The most worrisome part of this whole situation is that while some Chinese reject state thought control (and pay a dear price for their struggle), many not only accept the government’s propaganda, but also vigorously defend it. Pew Research shows “roughly three-quarters (77%) of the [Chinese] public believes that their way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence.”
How China’s Thought Control Affects You
Why should we care what’s going on inside China? Because the impact of China’s censorship and thought-control can be easily felt outside China. Many Chinese overseas echo propaganda like people inside China do. The most famous Chinese Internet troll group, “Little Pink,” is largely made up of Chinese females both inside and outside China. They’re notorious for bombarding the overseas social media of anyone who expresses any negative views about China, even fellow Chinese.
In May this year, Chinese student Yang Shuping gave a commencement speech at the University of Maryland. She praised the fresh air and freedom of speech in the United States and contrasted it to her experiences growing up in China: wearing a mask to fight air pollution and passively accepting government-authenticated “truth.” Many Chinese netizens, especially those from Little Pink, called her a “traitor” who was sucking up to westerners at the expense of belittling her motherland. Many demanded that she apologize, which she did.
Still, her home address was posted online and some Chinese threatened her should she return to China. Even the Chinese government stepped in, with the spokesperson of China’s foreign ministry stating all Chinese should behave responsibly in their public statements. The cyber bullying and harsh reaction from China actually proved Yang’s point that China lacks freedom of speech and thought.
But it’s the oversea reaction from Chinese to this student that really shocked me. Some Chinese students did speak out to support her, but it seems their rational reaction was drowned out by criticism. The Chinese Students and Scholars’ Association at the University of Maryland quickly put out a “proud of China” video campaign. Through media interviews and social media postings, many Chinese students in the United States said Yang was unpatriotic and she embarrassed herself and her motherland by speaking ill of her country in front of a “biased western crowd.”
The Forces of Freedom Have Work to Do
I recently experienced such a feverish defense of China in the United States first hand. At the Las Vegas Freedom Fest, one of the largest libertarian gatherings, one of my fellow panelists was a 30-something young man who emigrated from China to the United States when he was 12. Facing a libertarian-conservative audience, he confidently proclaimed that Chinese President Xi is a virtuous leader, China’s current economic system is laissez faire capitalism, western-style democracy is not suitable for China because of Confucianism, China’s one-child policy was humane, and people can freely express themselves in China without any repercussions.
It was almost as if he took the talking points from China’s foreign ministry and just read them. I thought he was telling a joke, but he finished his speech with a straight face. Later during the Q&A, he demonstrated that he believed everything he said by defending his statements unequivocally, despite mountains of evidence provided by other panelists.
If we believe some people inside China defend the government because they don’t have access to information due to censorship, or they are doing so out of fear, what’s the excuse for oversea Chinese like this young man and those from the Little Pink, who have all the information at their fingertips yet willingly accept and defend lies? They are the latest proof that Cultural Revolution-style censorship and thought control never dies because so many Chinese are willing participants and enforcers. If people like this young man can live among us for so long but stay immune to western ideas of human freedom, what does this say about the strength of our education, culture, values, and ideas, compared to the power of China’s censorship and propaganda?
The ripple effect of China’s censorship obviously doesn’t stop at China’s border. We in the west need to not only keep an eye on what’s going on inside China, but also be aware how that affects our lives here. It’s time we realize that not everyone who comes here and lives among us naturally seeks truth and freedom. Orwell wrote in “1984” that “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness, and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.” If we want the bulk of mankind to choose freedom, we have a lot of work to do.