Waiting in an office in San Francisco recently I was thumbing through a book, ”The Art of Calligraphy in Modern China,” when a passage caught my eye. I copied it down. I assume these are the words of book editor Gordon Barrass:
“In China the power of the written word was never challenged by a culture of political oratory as it was in the west. Never in China’s long history has there been the equivalent of the Areopagus where the great Athenian debates took place or the Roman senate. Nor has there been a political orator such as Demosthenes or Cicero. Chinese rulers expressed their power and promulgted their through written edicts.”
That helps explain the ferocity with which Chinese rulers seem bent on squechling dissent on the Internet. Reporters San Frontiers recently exposed how an array of bureaucracies censor 1.3 million websites and 160 million Internet users. “The Internet’s promise of free expression and information has been nipped in the bud by the Chinese government’s online censorship and surveillance system,” according to the report. (download)
China has long been a fascination. I studied Chinese language and history at UC Berkeley, and recall in particular one class taught by noted Chinese historian Frederic Wakeman (obituary ) about the period after the Opium Wars. Defeat taught the Chinese that they needed to modernize. But Chinese leaders also worried that accepting Western technology might erode Chinese tradition. What they wanted, Wakeman said, was Western goods without Western ways.
Today Chinese leaders want Western technologies like the Internet while rejecting Western ways like free speech. Says Reporters San Frontiers: “the Chinese Communist Party and the government have deployed colossal human and financial resources to obstruct online free expression.” One anecdote from the report will serve to illustrate. When an editor at the Chinese site Netease ran a self-selecting poll that asked, “Would you like to be reborn Chinese,” about two-thirds of the 10,000 people who responded said no they wouldn’t want to be Chinese again because life was so grim, etc. The government forced the firing of the editor responsible and closed the section he had run.
This is one world, one network. Technologies do not stand still. Either democracy moves East or control moves West.