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.

Lucy Dong is a T’20 Undergraduate and a member of Team Kenan. She also participated as a 2017 Kenan Summer Research Fellow.

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