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