The Inner Workings of Censorship in China

 Posted by on 18 September 2013 at 10:00 am  China, Free Speech
Sep 182013

On tonight’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I’ll interview Robert Garmong on censorship in China. Earlier this week, Paul sent me this fascinating article on how Chinese censorship works: Academics Launch Fake Social Network to Get an Inside Look at Chinese Censorship. Here’s the first few paragraphs:

Nine years after Mark Zuckerberg quit Harvard to build Facebook, one of the university’s political science professors, Gary King, decided this year it was time to launch his own social media site. But King didn’t set up his Chinese social network to make money; instead, he wanted to get an insider’s view of Chinese censorship, which relies on Internet providers censoring their own sites in line with government guidelines. King won’t disclose his site’s URL, to protect people involved with his project.

Previous studies of Chinese censorship have mostly involved monitoring Chinese social sites to see which updates censors remove (see “Social Media Censorship Offers Clues to China’s Plans”). Some have relied on rare interviews with insiders willing to talk about their role in censorship. By contracting with a major Chinese provider of Web software to help run his site, King could instead inspect the available censorship tools firsthand. He could also ask the company’s representatives whatever he wanted about how those tools should be used. “When we had questions, we just called customer service,” says King. “They were being paid to help us.”

Along with some parallel experiments on established social sites, King’s dabble in Internet entrepreneurialism has shown that Chinese censorship relies more heavily than was known on automatic filtering that holds posts back for human review before they appear online. The researchers also uncovered evidence that China’s vast censorship system is underpinned by a surprisingly vibrant, capitalistic market where companies compete to offer better censorship technology and services.

Go read the whole thing. Most interestly, China is eager to use “markets” to enforce its censorship. That underscores a point that Robert Garmong will make in tonight’s interview, namely that China is a fascist country, not a communist one.

Benevolence of a Culture

 Posted by on 2 July 2013 at 10:00 am  Benevolence, China, Culture, Ethics
Jul 022013

A while back, Robert Garmong posted the following story on Facebook:

Walking home from work, through the hard-packed ice left over from yesterday’s snow, past the construction zones, I saw a row of cars stopped, waiting impatiently while a very miserable-looking minivan spun its wheels on the ice.

(Incidentally, a Chinese minivan is truly mini. It comes up to my eye-level, at most, and it looks as though I could fit it into my backpack, yet somehow, like a clown car, you can get 8 people into it. They’re very crummy, and mostly used for low-end delivery businesses and the like.)

The driver clearly didn’t know what to do about his situation. He obviously didn’t get his driver’s license at age 16 in a small, snowy town in Illinois. After spinning his wheels a few times, churning up ice and spewing oily exhaust into the air, he got out of the car to come back and scratch his head, staring down at his rear wheels. He didn’t do any of the things I would have done: he didn’t put a rock or a piece of cardboard under his tire, didn’t throw dirt down, didn’t try to push his van past the glossy spot he’d worn by spinning his wheels. He just looked for a few seconds, then when the cars behind him started honking he got back into the van and started spinning his wheels again. The unofficial motto of China might as well be: Work harder, not smarter.

If this were Texas, there would have been five people lined up behind his little clown van to push him along (not that you’d need that many). The guy in the car behind him would’ve jumped out of the car to give him a shove, without even thinking about it. Passers-by would’ve joined in. Street vendors selling fruit alongside the road would have paused their haggling for a minute to come pitch in. (Well, I guess in Texas there wouldn’t be street vendors selling fruit alongside the road, but IF there were, they’d be helping.)

Here, all the guy got was a glance or two from the pedestrians, and a bunch of blaring horns from the cars piled up behind him. A larger bus going the opposite way rolled down its window so the driver could offer him some fairly useless advice, then drove off.

The clown-van driver was getting nowhere, so I jogged out into the road and gave a little tiny shove — I mean REALLY tiny — no stronger than would be required to open a stuck backyard gate. The van shish-shish-shished forward a foot or so, then got traction and chugged slowly up the road. The driver of the car behind him tooted a little honk of thanks, then the whole lot of them tailed the van-driver slowly, carefully up the hill.

For the most part, Americans are steeped in benevolence. We are willing to help others — including strangers — in a thousand small ways at the drop of a hat. That’s a huge value — and not one that we should take for granted. Such makes life so much better in a thousand small ways.

As it happens, I mentioned that culture-wide benevolence in my end-of-year Philosophy in Action Radio of 30 December 2012, where I talked about all the good in American culture. (That was the whole episode!) So if you’ve not heard it, take a listen:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Also, if you’ve not yet heard my two interviews with Robert Garmong on life in China… don’t delay! They’re chock-full of great stories and insights.

First, I interviewed Robert about “Teaching in China” on 19 September 2012. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Second, I interviewed Robert about “Should We Fear or Embrace China?” on 27 March 2013. Listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Robert Garmong on Cultural Influence via Trade with China

 Posted by on 2 April 2013 at 11:00 am  Business, China, Culture
Apr 022013

As I promised when answering the question on doing business with Chinese companies on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, here’s the commentary from Robert Garmong on whether trade with China with help improve China culturally and politically.

By way of context, here’s what I’d written him relevant to that:

Instead, [trade with China] seems like a prime example where trade is a means of exporting better American values, and thereby making China economically and political better than it would be otherwise. That’s a benefit to the Chinese and a benefit to Americans.

He replied:

As for your hope that trade with America encourages better values among the Chinese, that’s very limited. Most Westerners (myself included, ~2009), think that foreign trade will empower a new class of young, liberal-minded people who want reform. Unfortunately, this has proven to be mostly a naive Western bias.

The businesses that benefit from our trade are run by people who — whatever their personal predilections before going into international trade — now are among the most conservative in China. Remember that China is a culture with zero tradition of thinking in principles. So the people who’ve gotten rich on the free market are perfectly happy to continue the system of governmental control. And, since they’re mostly wealthy middle-aged men, they’re perfectly happy to perpetuate the cultural traditions that exalt rich old men. They’ve got their Audis to make them proud, they’ve got their CCP contacts to keep them safe, and they’ve got their mistresses to keep them happy.

(Here’s a fun fact for you: according to a survey reported on in People’s Daily, in 2011 the male population of China spent more on holiday gifts for their mistresses than for their wives. I may have mentioned that before, because it’s one of my favorite jaw-droppers in a country jam-packed with jaw-droppers.)

There is a rising “middle class,” though it’s only middle class in very relative terms. They are politically powerless and mostly indifferent. They care about making some money, ensuring their children’s education, buying their son an apartment so he can get married, and someday having grandchildren. (That’s sometimes discussed as “The Chinese Dream.”) They are increasingly frustrated by the corruption, and the fact that they work for $600 a month while their boss drives an Audi, but they aren’t politically active. If anything, they fear any change that might threaten the “Chinese dream.”

Recall, too, the cultural arrogance of the Chinese, which is deeply-rooted in traditional Chinese culture. (As is often noted, the Chinese word for “China” literally means “Middle Country,” in the sense of “the country in the center of the universe.”) And of course it’s reinforced in schools, on Chinese TV, and in the movies they see. For this reason, even as they benefit from their contact with the West, and even as some of them envy the freedom of the United States, the average person here is very skeptical of foreign values. This is why they’re quick to believe the negatives about America, such as that everyone carries a gun and shoots people.

The hope for change in China is not directly from trade with the West. It’s from the net-savvy twenty-somethings who populate Weibo and other microblogs. While in some broad sense their existence is made possible by foreign trade, they are only very indirectly influenced by that trade. They are influenced by *Friends* and *Desperate Housewives*, but I wouldn’t call those international trade because they’re mostly pirated copies. In their online discussions, those guys appeal directly to very basic and obvious human values, such as the aversion to corruption and theft by the government. They seldom advert to any foreign concepts such as rights, freedom, or justice. They often get these ideas from the West, but they don’t use them in their discussions.

I suspect, by the way, that this is the real reason the government is pulling away from English as a part of the curriculum. They’re smart enough to see where the dissent is coming from, and they want to discourage it. The Chinese operate in subtler ways than, say, their Soviet-era counterparts, so rather than openly crack down on the young netizens, they simply reduce their numbers, try to prevent them from reaching a critical mass by reducing English language training in the schools. This is how the government thinks, and it’s why they’ve been so much more successful than other totalitarian governments at negotiating the process of “reform and opening-up” without losing their grip on power. They may be rat-bastards, but they are very clever rat-bastards!

Fascinating, as usual! If you’ve not yet listened to my interview with Robert on Should We Fear or Embrace China?… don’t delay! It was a full hour of such insights! Also, be sure to check out his excellent blog, Professor in Dalian.

Correction on Chinese Gulags

 Posted by on 1 April 2013 at 12:00 pm  China, Communism
Apr 012013

In answering the question on doing business with Chinese companies on Sunday’s Philosophy in Action Radio, I made an off-the-cuff comment about how China doesn’t have gulags.

At the time, I was thinking of massive extermination camps like those of Soviet Russia in the 1940s or the concentration camps of the Third Reich. Today, China doesn’t have anything that extensive, but it’s wrong to say that it doesn’t have gulags.

I knew that what I said was wrong the moment that I uttered it.. but the moment slipped away too quickly for a correction. That’s the danger of speaking extemporaneously!

The Chinese version of the gulag, still in existence today, is the Laogai. I’ve not read a ton on it, but here are some sources worth checking out:

Nov 062012

I received the following fabulous story about teaching Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem in China from Dr. Robert Garmong in November 2009. I meant to blog it at the time, but I forgot about it until I interviewed him in September on Teaching in China. As I often say, better late than never!

Tonight was my first night teaching Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem in China.

Last spring, I made the decision to petition The Ayn Rand Institute for support via their free books program. At considerable expense to the Institute, they shipped me several hundred copies of Anthem, free for my students. I think they were as excited as I was to introduce Ayn Rand’s ideas to China in a systematic way for the very first time. I handed the books out three weeks ago in my graduate-level course on American Literature.

It’s a slightly risky move, teaching any work by Ayn Rand here in China. China is still a country with censorship — for example, the Ayn Rand Institute’s website is blocked by the government. Professors have been expelled from the country for teaching ideas critical of the government, and what could be more critical of the government than a radical assault on collectivism?

On the other hand, I’ve been told that all ideas, per se, are more or less tolerated here: censorship is directed mainly at direct criticism of the Party, especially with regard to tender issues in the provinces. Those professors who have gotten in trouble, I’m told, were using the classroom for open advocacy, and/or were very unpopular jerk-professors of the sort we’ve all experienced once or twice.

The edge of uncertainty about Anthem was heightened slightly last week, when some students told me they had read the book, with a little shock in their voices. One asked what the real message was, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was reading individualism in a Chinese government-university classroom. “It is too radical,” whispered another.

Last week, the students watched “Freedom Writers,” a good movie in the “great teacher shapes up hopeless misfit students” genre. The students loved the film, and I used it to set up Anthem by emphasizing the theme of individualism versus racism. I talked at some length about the “melting pot” idea, and how that is only possible if individuals are judged as individuals, not as members of their racial or other collectives.

Then, tonight, I introduced our discussion of Anthem by asking for initial gut-reactions. That’s often a very useful barometer of students’ context and understanding of a text. If they respond to a trivial or superficial element (“I don’t like red hair, so The Fountainhead is no good”), I know they’re going to need a lot of remedial concept-formation. If they respond to the right things, but with ill-formed judgment (“Locke’s argument for individual rights condones immoral selfishness”), I know they are going to need help expanding their philosophical context in order to understand the possibility of arguments for the other side.

Teaching Anthem in China, I got a little of both. When I asked for initial reactions, one brusque-faced student dressed in black faux leather jumped in immediately with: “I do not like this book, because Ayn Rand is Russian.” I expected some sort of anti-Russian nationalism to follow (and there is strong anti-Russian sentiment here), but instead he followed up: “She chose to move to America, so she betrayed her country. Why she must betray her country?” Um… “Her country?” Why must IT betray HER?!

While I was attempting to process this, like a 1970′s calculator trying to plumb pi to too many digits, his woman-friend jumped in with a wickedly calculated “I-gotcha” look on her face. “This book is wrong. Socialism does not mean what she says. She presents collectivism nai-ga-tively, yet she calls her fur-losofee Objectivism, as if it is objective. It is not right. It is too radical.”

Then a grinning guy in the back row, wearing a military-green wool coat, jumped in. “Our China requires collectivism for its moral survival. We cannot have individualism.” (Corrupting the Morals of China, by the way, is a crime that carries the death penalty, so Grinning-Guy had thereby issued what amounts to an oblique and distant death threat. Not that it would likely be carried out, but still… everyone knows it’s there as the ultimate punishment. That has a funny way of shutting people down.)

I was attempting not to literally reel. The plurality of non-aligned students were avoiding my eyes, as Chinese students will do. I looked to my support group, the three or four students in the class who clearly and profoundly love me, my class, and all things American. They smiled exaggerated, disarmed smiles of attempted support, but they were obviously folding up inside. I was on my own.

A woman in the front-right raised her hand to say: “My Marxism professor in undergraduate university told us that all Western thinks is metaphysical. Westerner wants to find the one, and maybe it’s a little radical, but makes sense logical. China understand that there is other side, maybe not just one side. Maybe this book like that.” It’s possible was trying to throw me a lifeline, saying “this book isn’t evil, it’s just too extreme.” Not much of a lifeline, I have to say.

I asked the students how they had responded to the writing style. One support-group woman finally jumped in to say, with a bold smile but a timid voice, that she’d found the book exciting. “I thought the Equality character was changing much through the story, so I could not stop reading to find out how he would think and change each time.” I explained the concept of a “page-turner,” which seemed to return some portion of the class to learning mode.

It was time for a ten-minute break, and damned if I wasn’t ready for that break!

After break, I decided to launch into a substantive lecture on individualism versus collectivism. I hit the issue as straight-on philosophy, not trying too hard to tie my entire discussion to Anthem. I drew examples from the movie they’d watched, I laid out a grid of premises, such as “collectivism: Individual has no value. Individualism: happiness is the purpose of life.” Collectivism: The good is service to society. Individualism: The good is to promote your own well-being. I talked about how collectivism implies the metaphysical premise that the individual is nothing, and society is everything.

This time, I thought the students really understood and were enthralled. They hopped with examples and questions. The same students who had earlier disparaged individualism, now leapt to its defense.

Chinese students are fun.

Robert Garmong’s blog — professor-in-dalian — has more fabulous stories from his life as a professor and now husband in China. If you missed my fabulous interview with him, you can stream or download it here:

Gun and Rights

 Posted by on 21 March 2002 at 10:06 pm  China, Firearms
Mar 212002

According to that bastion of liberty known as China, Americans are violating rights by allowing private ownership of firearms. See David Kopel’s commentary in NRO. How rich!

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