Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ China

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 24, 2000

Posted to NewsTrolls, 25 January, 2000.

When thinking about China, never lose sight of this statistic: more than a billion people.

That seems trite, almost overstated, but it means that any problem, any conflict, is magnified. Americans should take their problems and multiply them by a factor of three. Canadians should multiply them by a factor of thirty.

What would be big here - the arrest of a hundred dissidents, say - is small there. It corresponds to three Canadians landing in the slammer for their political and religious views, or thirty Americans. We witnessed a lot more than that just recently during the WTO protests.

This is not to apologize for the Chinese government, which as we all know is not especially democratic. But I think that it is a mistake to paint that wide a gulf between China and America. The actors may be different, the scale may be different, but the players are the same.

Consider the most basic human right, the right to life. The United States executes as many people per year as the Chinese, certainly on a per capita basis. Prison population? The United States is a leader there as well (and not to bash the United States - Canada has its fair share of prisoners).

Of course, we say, China's prisoners are political prisoners. Yes, but - it depends on how you define political. For myself, I believe that a person jailed for owning or selling pot is a political prisoner. The 'war on drugs' is a political war (it's certainly not a war on crime, save for the technical detail that owning pot is illegal).

Much has been made of the Chinese government's attacks on Fulan Gong. And, of course, the Chinese government should not clamp down on religious sects. But on the other hand, the Chinese did not burn a cluster of Fuulan Gong members to death, as the United States government did the Branch Davidians.

It's a matter of perspective. One person's religious movement is another person's whacky cult. Each nation has to evaluate the presence and activities of religious organizations and assess the threat potential. Is Fulan Gong a threat to the Chinese way of life? On the face of it I would say no - but on the face of it I wouldn't consider the Branch Davidians a threat either.

Much is made of the Chinese government's controls on the press, assembly and other communications. And let me be clear that I believe that the best thing the Chinese could do is to liberalize the media, and especially online media. But again, this must be taken into context.

When we look at western media with a critical eye we see little more freedom than in the Chinese press. The vast majority of newspapers, magazines, television and radio channels are owned by a small number of politically aligned media corporations. These corporations have a very close, almost incestuous, relationship with the ruling elite. Insofar as western nations are governed by corporate or capitalist governments, the western press is aty least as state controlled as the Chinese.

The proof of this is legion. American television shows carry anti-drug messages because the government pressures them into doing so. Anti- corporate advertisements, such as proposed by ad-busters for billboards, televsion, and other media, are refused by all networks. Televsion networks do not cover criticism of their corporate owners. Media giants such as AOL filter email criticizing their corporate practises.

It's hard from a detached perspective to say that one form of censorship is legitimate and that the other form of censorship is pure evil. From the point of view of the bottom, it does not matter whether your message is blocked by the state or by the corporation.

I think that the work that must be done to 'open' China must also be done in our own nation and our own back yards. I think that as we agitate for political and other freedoms for the Chinese that we need to take an equally critical look at our own social and political environment.

And just as we may from time to time find an ally in the American or Canadian governments as we push for reforms in China and elsewhere, if we resist the demonization of Asia and Asian culture which is spreading through western media, we may find an ally in the Chinese government and especially the Chinese people as we pursue necessary rights and freedoms in our homes and our communities.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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