Letter Seven

A few weeks back, I was encouraged to visit the Hirshhorn Sculpture Museum while I was visiting the DC area. Chinese artist and famous dissident Ai Weiwei’s most recent exhibit Trace was recently opened to the public and my cousin was eager to go. Ai Weiwei has long been a vocal critic of the state of human rights and free speech in China, and his art often reflects political themes and commentary. A lavish design with interlacing symbols of both expression and control (Twitter birds, chains, surveillance cameras) covered the walls. 176 LEGO portraits of activists and dissidents who have been imprisoned for their beliefs, 38 of which hail from China, covered the floor.

From Ai’s perspective, those depicted in his portraits are “heroes of our time.” Yet many people in China have never heard of these names, at least according to my cousin. She grew up in China and came to the US to attend college, but is not so keen to the idea that censorship could be morally legitimate because it is in the name of protecting the regime; it’s too convenient an excuse that allows for too many abuses of power. One of her friends, also an international student from China, espoused a similarly liberal viewpoint as the student speaker for the University of Maryland College Park Class of 2017 commencement. In what turned out to be a controversial speech on Chinese social media, she related freedom of speech to fresh air, expressing her appreciation for an environment where her voice is not censored when discussing controversial issues, and where she as an individual is free to define what she believes to be true:

I was convinced that only authorities own the narrative, only authorities could define the truth.

However, the opportunity to immerse myself in the diverse community at the University of Maryland exposed me to various, many different perspectives on truth.

I soon realized that here I have the opportunity to speak freely.

My voice matters.


Your voice matters.

Our voices matter.


This speech that was received with applause from classmates at UMD was met with violent criticism from the more nationalist parts of the Chinese web. She propagates the narrative of China that we in the US are used to hearing, a narrative that is popular because it supports the moral superiority of Western liberalism. And while it’s important to understand the ways in which censorship is used to oppress minority voices and legitimate grievances, censorship does serve purposes beyond maintaining political power.

According to one Harvard study, “Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content.” This guiding principle can apply to expressions that call for the fall of the regime, but also something within the realm of rumors that threaten public health, including one particularly ridiculous one that prompted hordes of Chinese to buy salt as a way to ward off possible nuclear poisoning. In the first scenario, the government is censoring as a precaution to threats to its legitimacy. In the second, it is censoring false information that would be harmful to citizen’s physical and mental health. What the Chinese government fears most is mass mobilization in any form; preventing collective actions in both cases maintains the stability of the country and the preservation of tradition.

Because collective action is so valued as a part of democratic processes, Western liberals are more likely to view the silence of collective expression above all else as evidence that censorship can exclusively be a tool to keep a one-party state in power against the will of its citizens. With my cousin as an example, I initially believed Chinese students studying in Western democracies would be more likely to adopt this attitude rather than exhibit the attitudes of acceptance and justification I saw at DKU. But the way that someone thinks, which develops as one grows up within a culture, is not easily negated after a few years in a new country. They are presented with new arguments, but they continue to approach problems with a mindset influenced by their cultural upbringing. The conclusions they come to are influenced by their personal experiences, and are thus diverse.

For Tom*, a Duke student from China, the problem with censorship is not so much the suppression of rights but of creativity. He told me that censorship has been high in the past ten years, but not so much as to stifle innovation too much. But within two years of Xi Jinping coming to power, the situation started going downhill. One place he says this can be seen is the annual CCTV New Year’s Gala broadcast on Chinese New Year’s, which in the past two years has become almost unbearable to watch because it is so filled with state propaganda. Outside of entertainment, we know that the internet restrictions also become restrictions on trade and economic development.

So there is general consensus that there is too much censorship. It’s just that for those more persuaded by Western liberal philosophy like Ai Weiwei, the (relative lack of) free speech in China is a problem because of conflicting ideologies. For many Chinese students at Duke and DKU, it is a problem of practicality. For me, this is a pretty good analogy for how the cultural mindsets of East and West differ.

There is always a tradeoff between freedom and stability, and societies collectively determine their own balance. In both China and Western democracies, the balance tends to continuously shift, and for different reasons. The most important lesson I want to impart is that it doesn’t make sense to talk about a country within an ethical framework that has little basis in that country’s culture and history. To debate the faults and merits of its systems and practices, to really understand China, should require stepping into a more Chinese perspective. And as this summer comes to a close, I look forward to continuing to deepen this understanding.


*name changed for anonymity

Letter Six

Big news this week: China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has announced an initiative that orders China’s three biggest state-run telecommunications firms to bar all mobile customers from accessing personal VPN services by Feb 2018. This is in addition to the initiative announced this past January aimed at eliminating any unauthorized VPN services. Already, the popular China-based GreenVPN was forced to shut down at the beginning of this month after receiving notice from “the higher authorities”. The crackdown is supposed to last through March, by which time more penalties may kick in for any remaining unauthorized services.

VPN’s are used widely to avoid geographic restrictions by routing web traffic through servers in other countries or locations, so I’m not sure how familiar most people (as in, those not regularly traveling to China) are with the service. When they aren’t being used to jump firewalls, they are used for business purposes like connecting traveling employees to the company’s home network. Duke actually offers its own VPN service to access the Duke network from off-campus, but students at DKU have been using it to get around China’s censorship laws and access things like Google Scholar and academic articles.

The first question I wanted to ask was whether I will still be able to use the US-based VPN services I subscribe to for every trip to China, as it is unclear whether this new development will only affect China-based services. But unlike me, the greatest worry of those studying and working in China is not the ability to access Facebook. Though the ministry claims that it will allow use of VPN’s for business purposes, foreign companies in China have long been feeling the strain of doing business under China’s severe internet regulations. The Cybersecurity Law implemented in June gives “government unprecedented access to foreign companies’ technology, as it bolsters control of the collection and movement of data. With the new ban, companies can only use VPN’s after obtaining permission and registration, and “In the past, any effort to cut off internal corporate VPNs has been enough to make a company think about closing or reducing operations in China. It’s that big a deal.” Last year, the office of the US Trade Representative listed Chinese Internet censorship as a trade barrier.

VPN’s have always been in a legal gray area, but individuals have never had to worry about being prosecuted for using them, only about their service being shut down. With a significant party meeting coming up this fall, perhaps the new initiatives constitute a more comprehensive version of the kind of short-term tightening of security that usually happens around times of political sensitivity. Censorship spikes around controversial political events like the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and it is sure to spike when Beijing hosts the 19th Communist Party Congress, a meeting that happens every 5 years to announce leadership reshuffles, and one that experts believe will consolidate President Xi Jinping’s power in the next five years. If only meant as a short-term damper on public political engagement during a sensitive time, then the ban confirms what we already know about how little confidence the government has in its people to make decisions in their own interests, but it is also a pretty explicit tool for silencing dissenting opinions.

If this new ban will also extend into the long term, then I am compelled to question the validity of the conclusions I drew from my first interviews in China. That is, according to the more educated parts of society and more importantly the Communist party, the severity to which speech is restricted online is needed because those who are less educated are less likely to have the necessary rational to process what they see online in a thoughtful, responsible way. At the same time, VPN’s make it easy for the more educated, who are trusted to consume media from the extranet, to easily bypass Chinese restrictions. Apparently, not anymore.

But, surely it is not in a country’s interest to prevent its scholars from accessing the global network of ideas. Surely it is not in a country’s economic interest to make it harder for foreign companies to do business while also making it harder for its own companies to become more global enterprises. Why is the Communist party so willing to risk economic development when they have been able to sacrifice even human rights for that very goal?

Censorship serves a lot of purposes, and it definitely serves a role in protecting the legitimacy of Chinese-style political meritocracy, or what political philosopher Daniel Bell calls the China Model. In his book by the same name, Bell explains that the China model has roots in imperial China (dating back as far as the 6th century) and ideally seeks to select and promote leaders on based on ability and virtue. Becoming a top leader means passing examinations of intellect, acquiring expansive administrative experience, and rigorous evaluations at every step. Pros: leaders plan for the long term, are not as vulnerable to lobbying by special interests and campaigns. Cons: a system where leaders are not held accountable by the people but by the system itself is prone to corruption, and a regime that is sensitive to dissent can resort to political repression (say, through tighter controls on online expression) deemed necessary.

The Party’s often violent suppression of calls for pro-democracy reform, or censorship of even something as trivial as Winnie the Pooh, are indicative of just how paranoid the regime is. Hard to see what they’re so scared of when surveys consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Chinese support their system of political meritocracy and “guardian discourse” over procedural democracy. Except, trends in Chinese attitudes reveal an equally strong demand for “‘Western’ values such as freedom of speech, government transparency, and rule of law, and these demands will only grow stronger as China modernizes.” The question is, is it possible to protect the Chinese tradition of governance, improving upon the advantages of political meritocracy, while also meeting demands for adopting more liberal ideals

Letter Five

I arrived in Washington DC just in time for the Fourth of July celebrations. On my Instagram feed, I see a friend’s recent post with the caption “proud to live in a country where I have the right to say ‘f*ck you’ to the President.” It’s a great day to celebrate the degree to which we enjoy our right to free speech, something that is still relatively modern even in American history.

I’ve spent the past weeks trying to better understand what censorship in China entails and implies in order to assess Western criticisms against Chinese violations of human rights. This week, I’m trying to get a firmer grasp on the Western historical context that has influenced my perception of free speech, as someone who has grown up in the US. That’s where my friend Alex Zrenner comes in. She was one of the first people I met as an incoming freshman, and just happened to have also done a Kenan Summer Fellow project related to online free speech.

At the core of her project’s ethical framework was this notion of “the marketplace ideas” in which expression of ideas exists in a marketplace of debate and argument that ultimately produces the best idea, the same way market forces produce the market’s true price. But if the problem in China is too many limits on speech, then the US faces its own dilemmas because of its efforts to protect speech at all costs. The failure of the marketplace begins to occur when the right to free speech is abused, like when anonymous users fling death and rape threats at female journalists via Twitter, or when fake news from both sides of the political spectrum is proliferated on Facebook. There exists an unresolved tension between limiting and protecting speech. Who becomes responsible for determining the correct balance?

There is no question that in China, the answer is the Party. But in the US, it is up to individual parties, or more likely, individual businesses. According to Alex, “there is a fundamental distrust in government and more trust in business. And I’m not saying that’s a left or right thing, that is an American thing.” Americans don’t necessarily trust Facebook to police speech, but we do trust the market, and we trust consumers to pressure companies like Facebook to police speech appropriately. If enough people don’t like the way Facebook operates, they will move to Twitter, for example. Developing the right rules for speech are closely tied to a media platform’s business interests.

Sometimes, this means censorship is the price of conducting business. In fact it was recently revealed that the algorithms Facebook uses to differentiate between legitimate political speech and hate speech protects broad categories equally but not subsets of those categories, i.e. Muslims but not “radicalized” Muslims. This “color-blind” approach to policing hate speech tends to favor “elites and governments over grassroots activists and racial minorities,” making it easier to “serve the business interests of the global company, which relies on national governments not to block its service to their citizens.”

This doesn’t translate well to users back home. Reddit, which has long tried to keep speech as unregulated as possible, wanted to cut down on hate speech but faced backlash from users for what was perceived as a move towards too much policing.  Alex wrote two years ago, “What do you do when so many are abusing the freedom of speech? We are afraid to censor them because of our history; it appears we are afraid of this slippery slope from censoring harassment to censoring criticism.” It’s a valid concern, and one that has already played out in China. The main purpose of censorship is supposed to be to prevent the irresponsible spread of false information, but having such a precedence for state-sponsored censorship makes it just as easy to also prevent criticism of government or of those in positions of power in general. Still, the Chinese Communist Party has no qualms with carrying out censorship without especially clear criteria or explanation.

We shouldn’t find the Chinese attitude towards censorship surprising. As a Leninist-type communist party, the Chinese Communist Party is inherently a party of the elite, not of the masses. Only intellectuals and elites are granted prestigious membership into the party, and thus the Party is best suited to serve as a guardian and leader to society. The Party is not a party of the people, and it’s not by the people (in the sense of direct elections), but it is supposed to be for the people, like your nagging mother that is just looking out for your best interest, even if you hate when she limits your internet access.

Meanwhile, Americans have been fighting over whether government should have more or less power to regulate anything since this country was founded. The fundamental difference between American liberals and conservatives is that conservatives trust the people and liberals trust the government. The first parties to form in the US, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans led by Hamilton and Jefferson respectively, represented this ideological divide. Yet such tension is not present in China. Or as Alex put it quite nicely “China doesn’t have a Jefferson.” There is no liberal or conservative party; there is one party and organized dissent is not allowed.

In a marketplace of ideas, deleting dissenting voices corrupts the market, making it hard for people to make informed choices in their own interests, thus undermining democracy at a fundamental level. But the Chinese government doesn’t have nearly enough confidence in its people to make those informed choices, so it makes choices about its citizens’ interests for them. It almost looks like the relationship between government and people is not too far from what it was in imperial China.

The Chinese conception of good governance will always be hard for the West to accept, and maybe it deserves some more consideration if it has cultural and historical roots. But another key component of the Chinese defense of its own conception of human rights is its prioritization of economic development. With something like the one-child policy, the connection between sacrificing human rights for economic development goals is obvious. The connection with censorship is less clear. It’s hard to see censorship in China as something more than mostly political, but I need to delve into the question of whether it is economically sound before I move forward with the question of whether it is ethically sound.

Letter Four

There’s something everyone with a smartphone in China knows how to do: the ritual of scanning QR codes, or “sao yi sao”. My dad likes to joke that even those vendors selling roasted sweet potatoes on sidewalks are using WeChat mobile pay; the shabbiest of carts have QR codes hanging off the sides. In a country where 90% of internet users are accessing the net via their mobile devices, social media is integrated into the smallest details of everyone’s daily lives.

WeChat is China’s largest messaging app, although you can more accurately think about it as a combination of Facebook, Uber, PayPal, Facetime, Venmo, Instagram, and a lot of other individual apps that you may rely on. It’s ability to be an everything-app has made it a source of inspiration for American social media companies like Facebook. But it’s also tainted by what Western liberals may see as it’s fatal flaw: its complicity in state-censorship regulations.

Of course, WeChat isn’t the only social media site that is actively filtering for key words. Signs of censorship are equally prominent on Weibo, a micro-blogging site comparable to Twitter, where controls seem to be getting even stronger in recent months. When I was on the DKU campus, I was able to take advantage of the power of “sao yi sao” to keep in touch with many of my interviewees, whom I either contacted via WeChat, or asked immediately after our conversation whether we could connect on WeChat. As a bonus, I was now regularly reading articles my new friends would share on their Moments (the equivalent of a Facebook wall) with their own commentaries. A few days before leaving China, one of these friends messaged me with an article she believed I may find of use. In just the past few hours she had seen it spread rapidly in her Moments. Aware the link may no longer be available by the next morning, she also attached several screenshots.

It was a piece regarding the Beijing Film Academy sexual assault incident. Speaking out via the personal Weibo account of a friend, a female graduate of the academy accused the father of a former teacher of a sexually assaulting her in 2011. Her allegations immediately following the actual assault resulted in her being ostracized by teachers and students, and even being denied her graduation diploma until most recently. The immediate aftermath of allegations being posted on Weibo was received with outcry from Chinese netizens in her favor and a series of responses from the academy that essentially dismissed the allegations and discredited this student.

The article my friend shared with me goes further to decry what happened even later: Weibo’s deletion of related topics, comments, alterations of the number of times a thread was shared or “liked.” The author, let’s called him Liu*, is a Chinese college student. The role Weibo played in this narrative engaged Liu’s attention for two reasons: 1. “This incident happened on a college campus, and as a college student I’ve developed a new sense of fear, a fear that I may be next. And if that happens, how would I want others to react? Remain silent?” 2. “What’s happened to all the victims of [lists several topics/incidents Weibo has censored]. We never get any answers.” He laments the absurdity of blowing up celebrity gossip to replace the sexual assault incident in trending topics, all while the official responses from the film academy remain intact. And he laments the fact that when another anonymous Weibo user provided evidence to support the female student’s case, the account’s contents were deleted.

In Liu’s observation of Weibo’s censorship of controversial topics, he’s lost a sense of security in his own home. His point is, this isn’t an isolated event, and Weibo has repeatedly silenced the accusing party in favor of the more powerful, reputable accused party. What kind of message does this send to the common citizen? Because of this and other similar incidents, Chinese women can reliably assume that their attackers will never be held accountable even when damning evidence is provided.

Remember that according to many of my interviews, censorship regulations are meant to target unverified information. But clearly, not all citizens are given equal opportunity to determine what qualifies as verified fact, and not just because of lack of access to education. The people who get to make those decisions are in positions of power, are men, are government officials. If you read Liu’s article word for word, at no point does he condemn the Chinese government for oppressing each netizen’s individual right to free speech, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t condemn censorship.

This may seem like a novel idea for a Western liberal, so I should first address a discrepancy in definitions of democracy. Western liberals subscribe to procedural democracy, placing emphasis on democratic processes and principles like fair elections. But the Chinese view of democracy is substantive, and has its roots in the Confucian tradition of min ben or “people as the foundation”. For Chinese people, democracy is not about process, but about government delivering results and providing for the welfare of its people.

So, for those of us who’ve grown up in Western democracies, censorship is a problem of free speech; it’s a violation of a key democratic principle, precisely because it is capable of undermining the democratic processes we hold dear. For Liu, censorship’s problems—or perhaps for other Chinese citizens, it’s merits—are evident in its consequences.

But I’ve been thinking: these consequences honestly aren’t far off from what you may see in similar sexual assault incidents that have happened on American college campuses. I remember the outrage I saw on my Facebook when those first headlines reporting the Stanford swimmer rape case chose to emphasize that Brock Turner was a star athlete instead of seriously addressing the details of the rape allegations. The light sentence he received created another outrage as it was proven once again that Turner would not be held accountable for his actions. The obvious difference is that the media here is exercising their own editorial control over what is published, while Weibo is regulating what kind of posts can be seen in accordance to censorship standards set forth by the Communist party.

The common thread I see here is people in power having the ability to manage information in their own interests. The Beijing Film Academy can keep its reputation untarnished because censorship regulations favor more official sources. Stanford and other universities have the power to prevent more people from creating bad press if they regularly dismiss and discredit victims and protect accused offenders. The court has power over deciding whose life will be more “severely impacted” by a rape. Facebook has its own rules over what posts count as hate speech. In the end, censorship goes beyond just deleting accounts and banning certain hashtags, and becomes also making people feel helpless enough to remain silent, thus self-censoring themselves. And that, it seems, is universal.

*real name is unknown

Letter Home Three

I’ll admit, I followed my dad to Chengdu (who is here on business) for recreational purposes. But I decided that since I was here, might as well make a trip to the famed Jiu Zhai Valley National Park, about 8 hours north by bus. The park itself and the mountain roads leading there are situated in Aba, which is Sichuan Province’s Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture. Trademark Qiang architecture, white horned roofs and goat emblems, and Tibetan prayer flags dotted the roadsides. In fact, Jiu Zhai Valley is so named because it has historically housed nine (jiu) different Tibetan villages (zhai).

The trip turned out to be the perfect opportunity to ponder some big questions. Namely because ethnic minorities tend to present problems for the communist leadership, especially the large ones (think Tibetan self-immolations and Uyghur protests). When they make enough noise, they face violence, and they face censorship.

Before this trip, I actually didn’t know that there was a large population of Tibetans in Sichuan. Aba Tibetans had been described as extremely loyal to the Communist Party and Chairman Mao. The Aba Tibetan that hosted my tour group for dinner one night told us that one of the three things a Tibetan must do in his/her life is to make a pilgrimage to Beijing and pay respects to Chairman Mao, and many hang a portrait of Mao in their homes. The Chinese national flag is flown from almost every building. From the way our host described it, none of this is mandated by the Chinese government either. Yet this region also faced the most extreme form of censorship after riots in 2008, isolating them not just from the rest of the world but also the rest of the country.

Xinjiang, the province that is home to the majority of Uyghurs in China, was cut off from internet and cellular access for months after protests in 2009. Tibet faced the same kind of treatment after a series of self-immolations. This is disappointing to hear, and I would expect fellow Chinese-Americans at Duke to react with horror at such an obvious suppression of minority voices, the common and correct reaction from a Western liberal perspective.

See this article from The Daily Dot“The slow creepy and chilling effect of China’s censorship”, in which an expert is cited saying “the Chinese government does not want people—inside and outside of China—to know what has happened, and is happening, in [Tibet or Xinjiang], as this would expose its troubled policies.” But does the communist party think its censorship policies regarding protesting ethnic minorities are indeed “troubled”? Is cultural relativism just an excuse to continue human rights violations, as Western liberals would argue?

It is well known that Uyghur and Tibetan protests tend to be violent and news of police related deaths would likely contribute to more protests. And after weeks of familiarizing myself with reactions to censorship, I was not surprised to learn that these decisions were made, and wouldn’t expect Chinese nationals to be surprised either. To understand this, you need understand what the party means by “Chinese values” how this affects Chinese political consciousness.

Let’s say “Chinese values” refers only to Confucianism, which does not completely encompass “Chinese values” but itself still provides a broad basis for understanding cognitive differences as they manifest in many different conversations, and not just those about human rights. As political philosopher Daniel Bell wrote for The Guardian, “Psychologists Huang Guangguo and Yang Zhongfang from Taiwan and Hongkong advocate the use of traditional Chinese ideas like the “relationism” (guanxizhuyi) and “middle way” (zhongyong zhi dao) for psychological research. Economists such as Shen Hong take the family as the relevant unit of economic analysis and try to measure the economic effect of such values as filial piety…Theorists of medical ethics such as Fan Ruiping discuss the importance of family-based decision making in medical settings.” In contrast to viewing the self as an individual, Confucianism views the self as a part of a greater whole, emphasizing relationships with family, friends, superiors, etc. Many of my interviews have similarly viewed censorship as a necessary measure to benefit the greater society at the cost of limiting the freedom of a few.

But when foreign journalists write about censorship, I get the sense that they think that whoever is doing the silencing must be covering for wrongdoing on their part. Part of what compelled me to explore this topic is the question of implying people are oppressed when they don’t feel oppressed, but I’m seeing that another question may also be whether the oppressors even believe they are oppressors. Reading more on Confucianism and other influential factors in Chinese tradition will help me better contextualize the reactions to censorship that I’m getting from students.

Letter Two

As I traveled from the grand metropolis of Shanghai to the growing city called Kunshan, I listened to the sounds of modern China. Cars beeping at a busy intersection, the wind as the high-speed rail approaches the station, an automated voice on the public bus announcing the next stop: Duke Avenue.

When I stepped onto the campus of Duke Kunshan University, my first impression was that I had entered an expanded version of Duke’s West Union. I was surrounded by glass; the wall of the main café looked the same as what you may see sitting at a table at ABP. But with a pond filled with lily pads and a Chinese curved-roof building as the courtyard centerpieces, there was a certain East Asian touch. The campus store carried green tea flavored Pocky instead of your usual barbeque Lays. The cafeteria served better Chinese food than “Western food”; no Panda Express here. The closest McDonald’s was a 30-min drive away.

As a place where East meets West, a lot of people (including me) who are interested in East-Asian affairs or US-China relations find this campus the perfect place to do research. Before I even got here I had already connected with one friend who is doing community-based research for DKU, exploring Chinese perceptions of liberal arts education, and another who is looking at education policy and studying the implications of universities like DKU.

By “universities like DKU” I’m referring to universities that are built in China as a result of American universities partnering with Chinese universities. In this case, its Duke University and Wuhan University. NYU similarly partnered with East China Normal University of Shanghai to create NYU Shanghai. As DKU entered its second phase, creating an undergraduate degree program, leaders from both Duke and Wuhan came together for a signing ceremony.

I noted that besides President Brodhead and the president from Wuhan University, Chinese government officials, including the Mayor of Suzhou and the Jiangsu education secretary, also expressed their approval and excitement for DKU as a project. Here is some of what I wrote down:

  • preparing students w/a global education
  • philosophy of individualism, promoting free, creative thought
  • global education is good for the economic development
  • import the Duke model and build on it

It makes a lot of sense that the comment about global education being good for economic development came from one of the Chinese officials. China has a habit of adopting practical ideas it finds in the West and adapting them to still maintain their so-called “Chinese-values.” I think that’s why foreign universities are not allowed to build independent branch campuses in China without partnering with a Chinese university. What “Chinese-values” actually are, I will try to address next week.

At first I was surprised because a western education seemed to threaten the general acceptance of government control of information and speech. But from this somewhat flawed sentiment alone you can tell that I still tend to operate on the assumption that freedom is binary. I’ve spent my whole life equating freedom to western liberalism, and it’s a hard habit to break.

When I spoke to the students at DKU, I found this assumption seeping through in my interviews. Even in introducing myself and what I hope to address, the Chinese students have already made a reasonable assumption about me as an American researching a topic that involves media censorship. It doesn’t matter that I look like all the other Chinese nationals on campus.

In one notable incident, the moment I said I wanted to talk about personal opinions of the government’s control of media and information, one student’s immediate response was exasperation: “Americans love coming to China to talk about censorship. That’s what you care about, not what Chinese people care about. Aren’t you guys tired?” * He said it jokingly, but he had a point. His exasperation is exactly what I find intriguing. Chinese people like him are sick of Western democracies trying to give Chinese people rights when they would rather care about how to further develop the economy and raise national standards of living.

But then again, as a student who has the opportunity to study at DKU, and who is relatively fluent in English, he is not as limited by government controls of media. As I’ve learned through many interviews, the firewall is not especially strict. VPN’s are available, if only to access academic papers from foreign universities or watch a Youtube video, but only if you have the circumstances to know what VPN is, and how to use it. And if you know English, you can access foreign media and readily access information that cannot be shown in Chinese search engines.

I often ask, do you think this is necessary? Many have answered that those without educations do not have the rationale to discern truth from fiction, and will easily cause unrest through the irresponsible spread of rumors and hearsay. Thus, government limitations are needed, if only to keep those who are uneducated in the dark. It’s for their own good, and it’s for societal good.

This has been an area of confusion and discomfort for me. If the uneducated are more easily limited in terms of access to information, they are also more limited in what views the can express, right? I’ve been talking to some of the more privileged parts of society, and I wonder what kind of opinions I would hear if I went into rural China and tried to talk to people about censorship there.

I was advised to stay away from speaking to random people for fear that they would report my project to the party organization. I made the decision before beginning this project that I would be safer speaking to university students because it would be easier for them to understand that I was not inherently insulting the communist party just because I want to talk about censorship. But perhaps that decision required making the same assumption about the uneducated rural population that censorship is targeted towards that I’ve heard from the students.

*roughly translated from Chinese