China 2012 – Rumination #2 – On Freedom

At times while travelling in China, it’s easy to forget that the people here do not enjoy the same kind of freedoms as we do. But then, throughout the day, little things happen to snap you back to reality.

We never saw the kind of overt earmarks of oppression that one might assume. There were no soldiers with machine guns. Security in airports was less conspicuous, and if anything more relaxed, than in western countries. The fact that security personnel all seemed to be 17 or 18 years old contributed to the effect. They might even smile at you – something seemingly forbidden by the training handbooks of western airports.

Still one always had the impression of being watched to some degree. Every significant checkpoint was  another photo opportunity. Cars seldom made it through toll booths without having their license plates photographed. And there was major security screening at all tourist sites of national significance – often more rigorous than at airports.

Probably the most conspicuous sign of curbed freedoms, though, was the level of censorship. The Internet in China is a flaky, frustrating, fickle beast, not because connections are unreliable, but because one never knows when the Great Filter Wall will block the path to the information you are seeking. We were prepared to forego access to social networking sites: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and WordPress were all blocked (but not Pinterest … sigh …). But I wasn’t prepared for the many other intermittent and untimely intrusions. At various times, Wikipedia articles on Chinese tourist sites would be inaccessible. At other times, clicking on a link in a Google search result would lead to inevitable frustration. Changing to Google Hong Kong might alleviate this for a time, or it might not. Redirection of any sort seemed to be a no-no. So, if a Google link didn’t work, you might be able to copy that link into the address bar successfully. Or not. Google Reader became a hit-and-miss affair. If my RSS feeds coughed up undesirable results, Reader itself might become dysfunctional for a period of time. Then Google Docs became web site non grata. For the first two weeks we kept track of our money and expenditures in a Google Docs spreadsheet, but suddenly, in the last week, we couldn’t access it anymore.

Neither was television safe from the watchful eye of the censor. Almost all our hotels included a CNN feed. Many also included BBC. Our last days in China coincided with the beginning days of the Communist Party National Congress. One morning BBC’s reporting turned to a discussion of the rival factions within The Party. Poof! The screen went black. After that, every BBC report on China was redacted in its entirety. If the censors were slow, the anchor might get out a partial syllable: “And in Chi …” Then thirty seconds of black silence. When the China report was complete, the news would resume. The BBC also engaged in all sorts of reporting on China’s economy. That was never touched. But a suggestion that the party was not completely unified in its selection of new leadership obviously crossed some invisible line.

Out of respect for our guides’ own safety, we did not address the question of freedom directly, but it did come up. Jenny and Phoebe mostly skirted around the subject. But once, at a site dedicated to the establishment of international multidenominational places of worship, I asked Charlie if a particular Indian Hindu temple held regular worship sessions. Charlie, who never understood a single question I ever asked him, once again mistinterpreted my intent (which was, “Is this a symbolic temple, or a place of regular worship?”) and snapped back with: “Of course, people are free to practice any religion they like, so long as it doesn’t go against the government.” Right Charlie. Methinks the guide doth protest too much.

Kevin was much more overt in his dissatisfaction with Government policy, restrictions and corruption. And Michael told us an anecdote of having to deny his relationship with his girlfriend (who ultimately became his wife). This was some twenty years ago. He was in university, and a member of The Party at the time, when the dean called him in to ask if he was having a relationship with another student.  Such things were forbidden, so he had to deny the relationship to avoid expulsion.

None of our guides acted as if they were oppressed, but the younger ones all made it clear, in one way or another, that they knew they lacked freedoms that others in the world enjoyed. Even Kevin, for all his dissatisfaction, said in one of our last conversations that he doubted that he would leave China, but hoped that by staying he could live to see it become a freer and better place. I hope for the sake of all the people we met that he’s right.

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