Already very active within the country, Chinese censorship is now being applied outside its borders, and via the Internet. What are the implications for China, and the rest of us?
SYDNEY — I don't know how many worthy endeavors have been quashed by Chinese censorship. What I do know, what I do feel, is that this system is destroying the imagination and creativity of the Chinese people.
In China, censorship is not regulated by law, yet that doesn't stop it from being more powerful than the law itself. Although the relevant rules aren't very clear, we all instinctively know what to expect and we are cautious about not venturing into sensitive or taboo topics.
In 2013, a good friend of mine recommended a book to a Chinese publishing company about a woman who murdered her husband. Initially, the publishing house showed interest in the project. But when they realized the characters were Muslims, they backed out. "We can't publish it," they said. "It's too risky. Muslims are taboo." I search far and wide, but found no law that banned speaking or writing about Muslims.
In fact, resistance to censorship has never ceased. This system is now struggling with dissent that didn't exist before the emergence of the Internet. The new means of communication multiply contacts between China and the rest of the world so that a large number of Chinese have become acquainted with English, inventing new "Chinglish" words, including some colorful ones like "shitizens" meaning Chinese citizens; "democracy" becomes "democrazy;" and "secretaries" are referred to as "sexcretaries."
Under the influence of the system
Political jokes, once never to be uttered out loud, proliferate online. I heard this one recently: "President Xi Jinping went to a good restaurant in Beijing. He asked what the dumplings were stuffed with. The waitress replied that they were filled with cabbage and pork: these with pork and cabbage and those with pork and cabbage. Looking upset, Xi Jinping exclaimed: "They are all stuffed with the same thing, do I have any other choice?" The waitress laughed and said: "President Xi, have you forgotten? When it was time to choose you, it was exactly the same!"
If the Internet has imposed itself as the place of freedom where resistance to censorship in China is expressed, it is also spreading the battle beyond our borders at a time when Chinese state-owned companies are networking around the world and when Confucius Institutes for the promotion of Chinese culture and language are being established in many different countries. Soon, the shadows of censorship will not only hang over we Chinese citizens, but will also catch up to you who are living far away, always believing you are safe from its reach.
About two years ago, a London magazine asked me to write an article. On its website, I saw all kinds of articles praising the Chinese Communist Party. It was not really my thing. I asked them why they published all this propaganda. The editor explained: "We have no choice. Some of our major clients are Chinese companies. If we publish too many articles that criticize the Communist Party and the Chinese government, they will just stop placing advertisements for us."
I know that phenomenon also exists among other European countries as well as Hong Kong, the United States, Australia and even in Africa. Sydney has already more than six newspapers in Chinese language. Most of them are close to the Chinese government, even if it doesn't control them directly. Articles and comments that are published and directly inspired by its propaganda openly praise the powers that be in Beijing. Hence, Communist party and Chinese government officials are already speaking out on Australian soil. Most might not even notice it.
Last May, PEN America Center showed that the publishing industry and some American writers were already under the influence of Chinese censorship in a report entitled "Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship."
Among you already
In Australia, the newspaper The Australian published in 2004 an article showing that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation signed a partnership agreement with the Chinese broadcasting group, Shanghai Media Group. That means that the Australian television broadcasts will go through China's censorship. Those who have a good memory will remember that during the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2009, the Chinese Consulate tried to cancel the screening of a documentary about the Uighur activist, Rebiya Kadeer.
This goes far beyond the fate of a simple movie. You need to understand that Chinese censors are already among you and that they have started to make choices for you. There will be more cases like these. As experienced in China, you will find out that skilled censorship officials are increasingly acting with discretion and subtlety.
It's tempting to say that censorship does not yet exist in the United States, the United Kingdom or in Australia. But if it's true that censorship also exists in these countries, I would say that it doesn't at all justify censorship in China. Indeed, any censorship in Western countries is not nearly as harsh as what we are experiencing in China.
Others may feel that freedom of speech is a very important thing but what matters most is doing business with China. Actually, all the foreign companies that have trading relationships with China are likely to be affected by Chinese censorship. In 2014, the "Great Firewall of China" became more airtight. Now, it not only blocks Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube but also Gmail and foreign email services on the Internet.
Every day, virtual private networks that avoid the Great Firewall by connecting directly to computers are blocked. Let me ask you a question: Don't these restrictions on disclosure imposed by the Chinese government affect your business in the long-term?
There are those who don't live in China who may think that despite the Chinese government's shortcomings, it could be much worse; and others who say that the digital revolution is stronger than the Communist party.
After the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, many people on the island thought the same thing. Eighteen years later, this city of more than 7 million inhabitants no longer has independent television channels or newspapers. Its politicians increasingly resemble the Communist Party branch secretaries. People who protest against China's policy are being increasingly harassed by local mob syndicates. Regarding the journalists and artists who dare to openly criticize Beijing, they are at risk of assassination â€¦
We simply cannot trust the good intentions of the Chinese government. The Chinese economic power enables it to have an impact on all our lives. In the West, China's censorship seems like a distant phenomenon that won't ever wade into our lives. But if you realize one day that your newspapers are publishing fewer critical articles about China, that intellectuals and the media begin to praise the Chinese system, I hope you will remember what I have just told you.
Civilization is an indivisible whole. When the government of a country begins to attack it, to gag it, to destroy it knowingly, it doesn't only affect its people but humanity as a whole. In these times of globalization, freedom of speech goes beyond any one country's domestic policy. If you watch silently as a foreign government destroys books and arrests people within its country, and if you then get even closer, turning into a trade partner or political ally, without every expressing qualms, then that same government, sooner or later, will attack your own freedom of speech too.
*The following is an excerpt from a speech delivered in Mandarin, on Sept. 6, as part of Sydney's Festival of Dangerous Ideas.