A little more on the Chinese censorship of Obama's speech

22 Jan 2009 08:45 pm

Maybe it's the jet lag. Maybe it's the culture shock of being back in DC for the first time in a year. Maybe it's my inborn crabbiness. Whatever the source, I find myself more more incredulous with each passing hour that Chinese media authorities could have thought it as necessary or smart to censor live coverage of an event being watched intently in every other corner of the world: the inaugural address of America's first black president and current champion orator.

I have been trying to think: in what other country might this occur? Burma, perhaps. North Korea, no doubt. Perhaps other tinhorn states. But a real, important, powerful, rich country that in many ways (eg, finance) is America's most important partner? It is almost literally incredible.

It's all the more surprising because of something that might not be obvious to the average US viewer. I have met a lot of Chinese people in the last few years, in lots of stations of life. Big shots, farmers, dissidents, factory workers, party bosses. And I cannot think of a single one of them who would have been put off his or her feed by hearing a new American president talk about the virtues of dissent or America's struggle against Communism. Even if they don't agree with those sentiments themselves (and many would agree), all of them know that this is the way  Americans talk and think. How on earth could it seem threatening to hear an American president talk about basic American beliefs?

Here is the "there must be an explanation" explanation. As I tried to explain in this recent article in the Atlantic, the people in charge of China's propaganda apparatus are among the least worldly and most rigid-minded people in the entire country, with absolutely the least feel for how people in other countries might react or think. So apparently some of these ignoramuses considered it a good and prudent idea to cut off Obama -- even if the vast majority of their fellow citizens would consider such paranoia to be extreme and bizarre. Also, within a part of the government where orthodoxy is everything, an official takes no risks by being too hard-line, but could get in trouble by being too permissive. Still; it is an incident whose importance may grow as time goes on. They couldn't even stand to hear Barack Obama speak!

After the jump, in the same spirit as the previous post, a couple of interesting reactions on this theme from people in and around China.  Maybe this will all make sense to me when I catch up on my sleep.

1) From someone who works in a major Western publishing house and has requested that I vague up the specific names and references below, though I know what the real names are:

I have a little anecdote regarding [a popular but vaguely dissident Chinese author]. We just got copies in of his latest book, and naturally, I wanted to send the author some copies, especially since he would like to give free copies to reviewers in [major Chinese city], where he will be for some kind of conference. His agent asked me to send the copies directly to his [other major Chinese city] address by express mail, instead of to her, which is my normal practice.

Imagine my surprise when, half a week later, the box was sent back to me, ripped open and marked "Return to Sender", with the reason listed as "Receiver refused package." I spoke to [the author's] agent to ask if he had simply not been in the building on the recorded date of delivery, but she said he had been waiting for it, and had therefore been inside all day. Perhaps this is all just a UPS error--what do you think? [My suggested answer here.]

I know [this book] was banned in China when it was initially published, but isn't it quite popular now? ... Would there be any reason for these to be shipped back? [No "good" reason.]

2) From an American with experience in China:

I too just returned from China and I too am depressed to find how readily one accepts what one cannot change.  The thing that I found depressing is not just that I accepted it, but that, generally speaking, I did not perceive how obnoxious it was.  Living in China, and becoming familiar with their system, I am beginning to understand that the freedoms we enjoy in the United States are not a natural state of affairs, that our "basic" freedoms are a tremendous cultural achievement (achieved long before I was born), and not to be obtained and then just protected.