Letter One

I arrive in Shanghai on a cloudy afternoon, following the familiar route from the international airport to the train station, where I then take the high-speed rail to my parents’ hometown of Jinhua in Zhejiang province. My mom recalls a time long before I was born when she and my older sister would make the trek from Jinhua to visit my dad then attending medical school in Shanghai; the now-1.5-hour train ride used to take her at least 9 hours.

I say this route is familiar because I’ve been making the trip to China pretty consistently every summer over the past few years. Of course, I’m making this particular trip for a different reason. I’m looking for undergraduate students to talk about media censorship, mostly because this issue exists within the context of a country that I have yet to adequately understand: one, because I grew up in Cleveland and not Jinhua; two, because the reform and opening that initiated China’s influential role in globalization has changed China dramatically just within thirty or so years, and the country continues to evolve.

When I visited the World Expo Museum, newly opened in Shanghai, I was incredibly impressed and moved by the exhibit that depicted China’s ultimately successful attempt to win the bid to host the 2010 World Expo. Not only does the World Expo serve as a beautiful symbol of globalization and the global exchange of goods and ideas, but the fact that China was chosen for the first time to host such an event was a testament to China’s rising place in the world order. The English translation reads: “It was the fulfillment of a hundred-year-old dream.”

What my project focuses on, government control of free speech and online expression, is an interesting piece of the globalization narrative. It is to China’s economic benefit that its citizens are connected to the rest of the world and its ideas, yet it continues to maintain certain controls over what information can be accessed and what can be said in public spaces both off and online. The more explicit controls exist online, ranging from a firewall that prevents access to certain websites to deletion of certain social media threads and search results. Such limits to freedom of speech have long been condemned by Western democracies as a violation of universal human rights and continue to contribute to the Western narrative of China as an oppressive regime.

That brings me to what compelled me to pursue this project. What does it mean to tell someone they are oppressed when they themselves don’t agree? I can remember my own surprise when as a 7th grader I found then Chinese Party Secretary Hu Jintao on a classroom poster of world dictators. The word “dictatorship” comes with a lot of negative associations, and I felt embarrassed that my ancestral country could be viewed by my classmates in such a bad light. This theme was repeated throughout my primary education; I learned that China is communist, a one-party system, has no elections…essentially everything that goes against the core values of a Western democracy like the US.

Naturally I approach media censorship with a sense of skepticism, coming to political consciousness in a liberal high school, a liberal university, and a country that holds freedom of expression as one of its highest values. I want to understand how, even as this value is infringed upon, the Chinese Communist Party can enjoy so much popular support. What worries me is that in broaching this topic I will already appear to my interviewees as another Westerner trying to expose the moral depravities of the Chinese government.

I feel the need to clarify that what I want to explore is not the ethics of censorship. Rather I want to use the issue of censorship as a starting point to talk about the ethics of globalizing and imposing Western liberalism on other countries without considering their cultural, historical, and moral values. Throughout this experience I hope to share reflections on how Chinese philosophical principles, political science surveys, and common threads in interviews may explain perceptions of various aspects of government media control.

Throughout the summer I will seek out students that have varying degrees of contact with Western liberalism, ranging from those studying in the US, those studying in liberal arts environment within China (like DKU), and those who have only ever had Chinese educations. I felt that limiting myself to this pool of people was necessary (and probably safer), but I also realize I won’t be getting the full picture.

The other problem is that my Chinese is not nearly as fluent as I wish it could be. I have no trouble holding regular day to day conversations, but I’m not well versed in the current language involving social media and government policies. I’m relying partially on the tendency for university students to be quite fluent in English. I hope that they will be comfortable conducting interviews in the kind of English/Chinese back and forth that I use with my parents, and that my translation app will be good enough with internet slang.

Duke Kunshan University should be a good place to start. The Global Learning Semester students there come from universities all over China. I arrived on campus in time to attend their open house and see the signing of the second phase of DKU’s development. More on these experiences and their significance as I interact with the DKU students. Wish me luck!