Monday, November 24, 2014

The Great Firewall of China                                                          Thanksgiving 2014
I have refrained from using social media as a forum for my political views, but I would never deny my friends their right to such expression. I have also made a conscious choice in the last year to use social media for positive contributions and minimize negativity. The important thing here is that it is my choice, and most others have the same  right make a choice, a right for which blood has been shed for its defense. I am talking about the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights- The Freedom of Speech. It has become as basic as breathing, and like breathing, we just do it, speak freely. Offer our opinions. Worship as we choose. Vote for candidates who have like-minded opinion and agenda. I have done it consciously or unconsciously every day of my 58 years. My time in South Africa taught me about a time not so long ago when things were not that way. I learned first-hand from people involved in the struggle about what it was like then and how rich life is now that all South Africans have basic constitutional freedoms. Last week, I experienced an “amuse-bouche”, a single, unexpected taste, of what it means to not have such freedoms….. I was in the Peoples Republic of China.

China has experienced significant socio-economic change over the last 20-25 years.  Spend a couple days in Shanghai and you would be convinced that capitalism is alive and well. My first trip to China was in the mid-90’s and over 15 or so trips since that time, I have witnessed what seems to be a relaxation of some previously restricted basic rights. But I realize now that I should not be fooled, the Chinese government remains an authoritarian one-party state that has tight control over its citizens’ rights regarding free expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Last week I was watching CNN in the hotel and a story about the protests in Hong Kong came on and my screen went suddenly to snowy static. When the TV came on minutes later the news team was onto another story. This happened repeatedly over the course of a week of CNN. I could not access Facebook, Google, Google+, not even my blog.  The Chinese government censors the press, the Internet, print publications, and academic research all in the name of preserving “social stability.” This government carries out involuntary population relocation and rehousing on a massive scale. Though primary school enrollment and basic literacy rates, China’s education system discriminates against children and young people with disabilities. The government obstructs domestic and international scrutiny of its human rights record, insisting free speech is an attempt to destabilize the country. The Government censors the press and social media as an attempt to keep its users and other reform-oriented media from exposing official wrongdoing, and calling for political reforms.

You might ask, if I have been going to China for almost 20 years, why am I bringing this up now?  In China, the Freedom of expression has deteriorated significantly beginning in 2013 when the government launched a concerted effort to rein in blogging and implementing multiple layers of control over all media and publications. Internet censors maintain the “Great Firewall,” which blocks outside content from reaching Internet users in China and allows identification of those who violate approved protocals  often leading to detention and prosecution. Since August, authorities have waged a campaign against “online rumors.” The campaign has targeted influential online opinion leaders and ordinary citizens- hundreds have been detained for days. Also in August, the government office of Internet affairs warned Internet users against breaching “seven bottom lines,” including China’s “socialist system,” the country’s “national interests,” and “the public order.”

My bottom line is awareness. From awareness each of us can decide a course of action. That is part of our basic freedom. I have a number of friends and colleagues in China who would say things are certainly better than when they were children. Then again they live in Shanghai. The outer provinces and rural lands are another world altogether. Many of our workers have come to the larger cities of Shanghai and Zhangshan to earn money to send it back to families with nothing. They came to look for opportunity from a place that had none. We understand China’s growth. We see growth in our own businesses resulting from China. But when we listen to the talking heads on Fox or CNN talk about human rights violations it can seem abstract. I am here to say I have experienced a little taste- an amuse bouche- of the tip of the iceberg that is China’s campaign to deprive its citizens of what we consider basic human rights.  From my perspective, it left a very bad taste in my mouth. Give thanks this Thanksgiving for basic freedoms, they should never be taken for granted. 

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