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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Battling the Information Barbarians

January 31, 2010

China often views the ideas of foreigners, from
missionaries in the 17th century to 21st-century
Internet entrepreneurs, as subversive imports.
The tumultuous history behind the clash with Google.
Bloomberg
The Wall Street Journal
January 29, 2010

A message of support for Google left outside the
company's Beijing office on Jan. 14.

In 1661, Adam Schall, a Jesuit missionary from
Germany and astronomer at the Chinese imperial
court, fell victim to jealous mandarins, and was
sentenced to death for teaching false astronomy
and a superstitious faith. He was only just saved
from being strangled, when a sudden thunderstorm
convinced his judges that nature had spoken
against their verdict. Father Schall died soon
after. But the defensiveness of the mandarins,
who saw his foreign ideas as a threat to their
status, would be a recurring theme in Chinese relations with the outside world.

So, is it true after all, what they say about
clashing civilizations? It is tempting to see the
official Chinese response to Hillary Clinton's
speech on Internet freedom in that light. Spurred
by Google's announcement that it might pull out
of the Chinese market in protest over censorship,
Mrs. Clinton talked about Internet freedom in
terms of universal human rights. Her speech was
promptly denounced in a Communist Party newspaper
as "information imperialism." Foreign Ministry
spokesman Ma Zhaoxu claimed that China's
regulation of the Internet (banning references to
Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwanese independence and so
on) was in keeping with "national conditions and cultural traditions."

The claim of universality is indeed an important
facet of American culture, rooted in the American
Revolution and Protestant ethics. It is
considered proper for a U.S. secretary of state
to give voice to the ideal of universal human
rights. Just so, a Chinese official sees it as
his duty to assert the uniqueness, or even
superiority, of Chinese culture. This was true of
Confucian scholar-officials in the imperial past. It is still true today.

Thought control, in terms of imposing an official
orthodoxy, is a very old tradition. The official
glue that has long been applied to hold Chinese
society together is a kind of state dogma,
loosely known as Confucianism, which is moral as
well as political, stressing obedience to
authority. This is what officials like to call Chinese culture.

One can take a more cynical view, of course, and
see culture as a mere fig leaf meant to hide the
machinations of political power. The latest
Chinese salvo against the U.S., blaming the
Americans for instigating rebellion in Iran
through the Internet, reveals that the current
spat has a hard (and opportunistic) political
core. And the assumption that Google, as a
Chinese editorial put it, is a "political pawn"
of the U.S. government, is a clear case of projection.

In any case, instilling the belief that obedience
to authority is not just a way to keep order, but
an essential part of being Chinese, is highly
convenient for those who wield authority, whether
they be fathers of a family or rulers of the
state. That is why in their efforts to promote
democracy after World War I, Chinese
intellectuals denounced Confucianism, with its
rigid social hierarchy, as an outmoded orthodoxy which had to be eradicated.

It was, as we know, not so much eradicated as
replaced by a Communist orthodoxy after 1949. And
when this orthodoxy began to lose its grip on the
Chinese public after the death of Chairman Mao in
1976, Chinese officials struggled to find a new
set of beliefs to justify their monopoly on
power. The ideological hybrid that followed
Maoism was "Socialism with Chinese
Characteristics," a mixture of state capitalism
with political authoritarianism. Later,
Confucianism actually made a comeback of sorts.
But the most common ideology since the early
1990s is a defensive nationalism, disseminated
through museums, entertainment and school
textbooks. All Chinese schoolchildren are
indoctrinated with the idea that China was
humiliated for centuries by foreign powers, and
that support of the Communist state is the only
way for China to regain its greatness and never be humiliated again.

This is why foreign criticism of Chinese
politics, or Chinese infringements of human
rights, is denounced by government officials as
an attack on Chinese culture, as an attempt to
"denigrate China." And Chinese who agree with
these foreign criticisms are treated not just as
dissidents but as traitors. The term "information
imperialism" is clearly designed to evoke
memories of the Opium Wars and other historical
humiliations. Chinese are meant to feel that
foreigners who talk about human rights are doing so only to bash China.

This is not always entirely irrational. If
Chinese chauvinism is defensive, American
chauvinism can be offensive. The notion that the
U.S. has the God-given right to impose its views
about liberty and rights on other countries,
sometimes backed by armed force, has provoked
precisely the same reaction in many places as
Napoleon's wars for Liberty, Fraternity and
Equality once did. No matter how fine the ideals,
people resent it when they are pushed down their
throats. Besides, the Chinese are not alone in
mixing politics with morality. The history of
Christian missions in Asia, or indeed Africa,
cannot be neatly separated from imperialism; they
were indeed often part of the same enterprise.
Even scientific ideas, such as astronomy or
medicine, which might be considered to be
neutral, came with values that were anything but.
The earliest missionaries in China, such as the
great Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610),
introduced science as part of their aim to spread the Christian faith.

In fact, there is an interesting parallel between
those early Christian missions and our
contemporary efforts to spread universal human
rights, especially in regard to China. Ricci and
his colleagues, as Jesuits, believed that the
best way to influence the Chinese elite was to
adapt to Chinese culture, to wear Chinese
clothes, to speak in Confucian terminology, to
"go native," as it were. They were criticized by
other Catholic orders, who saw this as a
shameless betrayal of Christian principles. Only
the true faith should be preached, with no compromises to heathen views.

A very similar debate is going on today between
those who believe that applying Western notions
of human rights and democracy to China is
counterproductive. Many a politician, businessman
or media tycoon has argued that adapting to
special Chinese conditions is surely more
effective if one wishes to have any influence in
China. The fact that this argument is usually
self-serving does not make it necessarily wrong,
but so far it has certainly not been proven
right. Chinese human rights have not been
noticeably advanced because of foreign compromises with Chinese illiberalism.

The dilemma for the Chinese elites, ever since
the early Christian missions, is the question of
how to adopt useful Western ideas while keeping
out the subversive ones. Intelligent Chinese knew
perfectly well that much of Western knowledge
(how to construct effective guns, say) was not
only useful but essential as a way to make China
strong enough to resist foreign aggression. But
the tricky part for scholar-officials was how to
use that knowledge without weakening their own
position as guardians of Chinese culture.

To mention just one example, greater knowledge of
geography and other civilizations made it harder
to maintain that China was the center of the
world which should naturally be paid tribute to
by barbarian states. In ancient times, foreign
barbarians were ranked with the beasts. By the
time Matteo Ricci, in 1602, showed the Chinese a
world map (now on view at the Library of
Congress), some foreigners were treated with more
respect, but the old Sino-centric defensiveness
had far from vanished. If the Middle Kingdom was
no longer the perfect model of civilization, its
traditional political arrangements became vulnerable to domestic challenge.

One way of dealing with this problem was to
separate "practical knowledge" from "essential"
culture, or ti-yong in Chinese. Western
technology was fine, as long as it didn't
interfere with Chinese morals and politics. In
practice, however, this was not feasible.
Political ideas came to China, along with
science, economics, and Western religion. And
they did help to undermine the old established
order. One of these ideas was Marxism, but once
Mao had unified China under his totalitarian
regime, he managed for several decades to
insulate the Chinese from notions that might undermine his power.

Once China opened up to the world for business
again in the late 1970s, under the leadership of
Deng Xiaoping, the old problem of information
control emerged once again. Deng and his
technocrats wanted to have the benefit of modern
economic and technological ideas, but, like the
19th century mandarins, they wished to ban
thoughts which Deng called "spiritual pollution."
The kind of pollution he had in mind was partly
cultural (sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll), but
mainly political (human rights and democracy).

Deng's attempt, which was only partly successful,
was made far more difficult by the invention of
the Internet, the problems and possibilities of
which were left for his successors to deal with.
The Internet, which has boomed over the last few
years, cannot be totally policed; there are
simply too many ways to dodge the censors. But
China, with its army of cyberspace policemen, has
been remarkably effective at Internet control, by
mixing intimidation with propaganda. The
intimidation encourages self-censorship, and
nationalist propaganda creates suspicion of
foreign criticism. It is not hard to find
well-educated Chinese who buy the line about "information imperialism."

On the other hand, there are also plenty of
Chinese who have applauded Google's defiance of
the authorities. When hackers, operating from
China, targeted the Gmail addresses of Chinese
human rights activists, Google decided that it
would no longer help to police online
information. As the Google CEO Eric Schmidt put
it this week at Davos, where he repeated his
criticism of Chinese censorship of the Internet:
"We hope that will change and we can apply some
pressure to make things better for the Chinese
people." Even as government spokesmen criticized
the US for interfering in Chinese affairs,
hundreds of Chinese Internet users laid flowers
at Google offices in Beijing, Shanghai and
Guangzhou. This is why it is too simplistic, and
even noxious, to see the conflict over Internet
freedom simply as a cultural clash. Those who
would like to enjoy the same freedoms that people
in democracies take for granted are Chinese too.

The question, then, for Western companies, as
much as for Western governments, is to decide
whose side they are on: the Chinese officials who
like to define their culture in a paternalistic,
authoritarian way, or the large number of Chinese
who have their own ideas about freedom. Google
has made its choice. It strikes me as the right
choice, for not only will it encourage a healthy
debate on freedom of information inside China,
but it could serve as a model of behavior for
companies operating in authoritarian countries.
Even for enterprises aimed at maximizing profits,
it might sometimes pay to burnish their image by
being on the side of the angels.

* Ian Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor at
Bard College. His latest book, "Taming the Gods," will be published in March.
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