It was the first day of our eagerly-awaited trip to China, and I wanted to check my email and catch up on the news back home by reading the on-line versions of this paper and the "Washington Post.” I tried to connect to the Internet, using the password given us by the pleasant young man at the reception desk, but was having no luck. Once I reached the desired websites, I couldn't get them to build any content. I finally went back to the desk and told the clerk of my problem. Without hesitation, he gave me a broad smile and explained, "You won't be able to. The government blocks Gmail and sites like that (meaning foreign newspapers and magazines).”
With that brief exchange, I was rudely reminded that I was in a communist country, despite the hotel’s posh Western amenities. China has been able to maintain its totalitarian grip by "protecting" its citizens from unhealthy outside influences that we take for granted in a free society. I later found out from our guide that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google Maps are also blocked. Moreover, if any citizens devise a way around the blocks via VPN or Virtual Private Network sites, they invite investigation, especially if they are found to have a great many followers on, say, Facebook. Such individuals are considered dangerous; most certainly so if they espouse causes in the realm of human rights, religious movements, or democracy. Then, according to our guide, it is necessary for the state to "harmonize" them to fit in with the rest of society, a scary term right out of the George Orwell lexicon.
I was agitated by this oppressive characteristic of Chinese society until I began to realize and appreciate what was at stake. Today's China is a nation of almost 1.4 billion people. Governing such a vast population that includes 56 distinct ethnic groups with many diverse needs and faiths, including Islam, is quite a responsibility that leaves little room for error. In the "what could go wrong?" department, all China's leaders have to do is consider how well the Arab Spring has gone for Egypt, Libya, and Syria or what happened to the invincible Soviet Union once Gorbachev decided to loosen the reins a bit on the Eastern Bloc countries to allow incremental movement toward autonomy. These real world case studies represent cautionary tales for the Chinese leadership. They do not want to hazard opening a Pandora’s box and discovering the unforeseen consequences of broader rights. The safer course is to keep the lid on tight.
One morning I picked up a copy of "China Daily," a national newspaper printed in English. Like the rest of the media in China, it is owned by the state. The news itself was pretty bland— articles about the projected low wheat harvest and an unmanned Mars probe in 2020. There was also a piece on Prince's sudden death. I found the opinion and editorial page more interesting. There was an astute column on the hypocrisy of our presidential campaign and our "phony money-centric system of democracy." It included a question about the lack of diversity in our candidate pool and wondered, "Where are the African Americans? Where are the Asian Americans?" These queries are justified for our country of more than 320 million people.
The most strident piece in the newspaper was aimed at the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region or SAR, which was created in 1997 when the British transferred sovereignty of the city to China. In the wake of student demonstrations, the column warned the city’s younger residents to dismiss thoughts of establishing an independent state. It said they "could be putting Hong Kong on a potentially dangerous collision course with the motherland and bringing an unmitigated disaster to the SAR." The message was bone-chillingly clear, especially since the shades of Tiananmen Square still haunt the country.
With the help of another American, we eventually used an app to access a VPN so our phones and iPads could circumvent Big Brother. Without it, all we could open were weather websites. This is no doubt a safer topic than human rights or Hong Kong’s independence because, as Mark Twain supposedly surmised, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” I’ll bet the Chinese leadership likes that outcome just fine.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.