Free speech in China — an impossible dream?

tienanmentank-395No one really knows how many people died, were permanently hurt or lost their livelihoods 24 years ago today in Tiananmen Square. The government may have records on the casualties, believed to total more than 155 killed and 65 wounded, but it hasn’t made them public. Indeed, Chinese history books barely acknowledge the event, known in China simply as June Fourth. Sadly, few Chinese have seen the iconic AP photo of the lone man standing up to tanks in Beijing.

This extraordinary moment in recent Chinese history, though, echoes among those aware of the events at the time, both in the West and in China. Rising expectations for democracy and such freedoms as the right to free expression thrust hundreds of students into the streets on June 3 and 4. The country had thrown off the stultifying yoke of Maoism, had embraced the liberating force of capitalism and seemed to be on a road toward wider choice in everything from consumer goods to politics.

And then, of course, the road came to a dead end with tanks, bullets and tears in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The sprawling area of monuments, museums and government offices, which today draws thousands of Chinese and Western tourists, became synonymous with oppression.

It’s hard for us in the West to grasp how disillusioning this massacre must have been for the Chinese. First, many of the pro-democracy demonstrators killed were students at the nation’s top universities; these were the best and brightest in a Confucian system that ranks intellectuals high in the pecking order. I’m sure they were students much like the bright and eager young people I taught at Tsinghua University in the fall of 2011, innocent idealists who love their country and want only to make it better. Thus, their interest in journalism.

More important, the June Fourth protesters couldn’t have been more precious to their families. Because of China’s one-child policy, these students – some still in their teens – each carried the weighty hopes and aspirations of parents and grandparents on their shoulders. Little could be more alienating or tragic for those families, who today still bear the burden of grief and fury.

Ding Zilin, 2010
Ding Zilin, 2010
”Since my son died in 1989, there’s nothing more that can scare me,” Ding Zilin, a retired professor whose 17-year-old, Jiang Jielian, was killed on the night of June 3, told the New York Times in 1999. ”I do what I choose to do according to my own conscience.”

Ding, a retired professor of philosophy at People’s University who had once been a loyal Communist Party member, led a drive then to open a criminal investigation into the events of June Fourth. It went nowhere. Ding, who had attempted suicide repeatedly after the death of her son, wound up leading bereaved parents who have continued to demand the right to mourn their children in public and to end persecution of June Fourth victims. In response, she and her husband, former People’s University Aesthetics Institute head Jiang Peikun, have been constantly harassed. Ding’s nomination for the Nobel Prize in 2003 must have been a major embarrassment for Party leaders.

Since the massacre, some at the demonstrations or — like Ding — related to demonstrators have endured house arrests, loss of work and ongoing medical problems. Qi Zhiyong, a construction worker who went to the demonstrations out of curiosity, not activism, lost a leg, his occupation and any good feelings he had toward the Party, as the Washington Post reported. The paper reported that Zhang Lin, who organized protests in 1989 in Anhui Province, has spent much of the last 20 years under house arrest or in jail, as an advocate for labor rights and democracy. Some protesters who went on to have good careers now stay quiet about their youthful activism, fearing retribution.

Chinese leaders crushed the Tiananmen demonstrations nearly a quarter-century ago out of fear that they could trigger nationwide uprisings. Since then, however, riots, protests and mass incidents have only grown, with some 180,000 in 2010 alone, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Instability, driven by economic grievances or dissatisfaction with corruption, has worsened and is a major source of worry for the government. Chinese leaders today are desperate to manage societal transformation – which includes everything from urbanization to economic growth — while keeping a lid on the discontent and maintaining Party control.

Xi Jinping and other new leaders of China are walking a narrow and treacherous path. As economic expansion slows, disparities in wealth grow and upheaval from the migrations of millions to crowded cities worsens, they will surely find it increasingly difficult to keep order. That challenge to preserve order may underlay recent directives barring discussion of such topics as freedom of the press in universities and concerns in some Party quarters about too much Westernization.

Peter Herford
Peter Herford
Peter Arnett
Peter Arnett

The Party’s worries have hit home for some distinguished Western journalists recently. Peter Herford and Peter Arnett, longtime Asia hands who have taught for years at Shantou University’s journalism school, were just pink-slipped. Ostensibly, this is because they passed a mandatory retirement age of 70 for foreigners teaching in China. Herford, however, finds this puzzling because each of them passed that milestone about eight years ago.

Far less momentously, the government’s worries also hit home for me. In the last few weeks, I wanted to survey Chinese journalism students about freedom of expression and censorship, as well as the biases they see in both Western and Chinese media. I scuttled the project, however, after colleagues in China warned that the students’ answers, even in an anonymous Web-based study, might be tracked by state monitors. The survey wasn’t worth putting the students at risk.

tiananmen_square_original_t_shirts-ra2e852c4ad79491598dbbf9530e70006_va6lr_512Chinese leaders seem to have learned the wrong lessons from June Fourth. Suppressing speech is like clamping a lid on a pot of boiling water. As the heat grows, the chances of an explosion just grow with it. No doubt, the leaders worry that the more apt comparison is to the Arab Spring, and they are determined to avoid similar tumult. Not heeding – or even hearing — the demands and discontents of the people, however, seems like a losing strategy for a government. Certainly, plenty of Chinese dynastic leaders up to Empress Dowager Longyu, ousted in 1912, learned that the hard way.

Suppressing the history of June Fourth, barring free speech and banning even discussion of a free press, won’t keep Chinese people from learning about these things. Even keeping June Fourth off the Internet in China won’t do the trick. Do leaders really not think the 190,000 Chinese now studying in the U.S. won’t hear about it? What of those studying elsewhere, including in Hong Kong or other parts of Asia? Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the tragic event. An even brighter spotlight will be shone on the massacre then. Facing up to that dark history in the coming year might be a far better approach than tightening the lid on that bubbling pot even more.

China: land of contradictions

As we walked to lunch with faculty and a couple administrators the other day, we passed demonstrators holding a sit-in outside the Tsinghua administrative offices. Their placards told of how they wanted more money for the destruction of their homes, which was planned to make way for faculty housing. Our hosts, chagrined by the protest, nonetheless noted that this was an example of free speech. These people, it seemed, had a right to make their grievances known.

It seemed a lot like home. But, then at lunch, we got some friendly advice from a Party official who is a fellow academic. Be mindful of what we say in class, we were counseled. Chinese students, especially those from the countryside, give teachers enormous deference in this Confucian society. Moreover, with social media alive and well in China – through local knockoffs of Facebook and Twitter – anything we say may find an audience well beyond the classroom. Privately, say what you want. Publicly, be discreet. There’s a difference in China between the private and public realms.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. But, what a perplexing country this is. On the one hand, it has embraced so much about the West. Just look at the soaring skylines in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And consider the recurring 10 percent-plus annual growth rates that put the U.S. and the rest of the economically turbulent West to shame. The Chinese are setting the pace for the world.

School of Economics and Management
Their passion for capitalism is obvious. The school of economics and management here is a towering modern compound fronting on the strip of stunning buildings that adorn a stretch near the main gate. Inside one of the several buildings, portraits of Nobel Prize-winning economists make a long line in the lobby – seemingly, all are Americans, including New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. By contrast, the university’s school of Marxism is tucked off in a less impressive quarter of campus, housed in a small, older building. I’ve heard Marxism is regarded as a matter of philosophy, nothing quite so practical as economics and management. Certainly, there’s no doubt who these folks want their students to look up to.

Merit is also prized here, whether in school or in government. To join the Communist Party, our colleague explained, one must be in the top of one’s class academically. The Party is for the elite, those who can lead the country, and getting through the application process is tough and time-consuming. Only about six percent of the 1.3 billion people in the country qualify for Party membership (a surprising share, even if that amounts to 80 million folks).

Indeed, the Party leadership is composed of practical men with impressive academic backgrounds. Some have graduated from Tsinghua, with degrees in subjects such as water engineering. The current president, Hu Jintao, is an alum. The children of some of these men now study at Western institutions such as Harvard. These are bright people who, it seems, take seriously the need to intelligently manage a country where vast numbers still live in poverty a world apart from privileged city-dwellers. They seem to want to spread the wealth and manage the growth of their country well.

And yet, there is a limit to how far western approaches go here. I bumped up against it the other day, when I wanted to shoot some photos at a central athletic field on campus. Large numbers of students paraded about the sprawling field in military uniforms. Military training, a student here told me, is required of all freshmen. Indeed, days earlier I saw similar troops of students marching around campus and singing songs of loyalty to the nation. It was reminiscent of years ago in the U.S., when students had to go through ROTC training on many campuses.

Struck me as interesting. But a fellow in a black athletic outfit thought otherwise. “Delete,” he told me politely — but firmly — as he appeared out of nowhere. This was arguably a public place, and certainly would have been considered so in the U.S. Further, he was not in uniform and didn’t say who he was. But I was in no position to argue. I am, after all, a guest in this country and must behave as one. I certainly don’t wish to offend my hosts, whose graciousness has gone above and beyond.

School of Marxism
Odd thing is, other military events on campus seem to be fair game. For instance, I was able days before to photograph a flag-raising ceremony conducted by young people in front of the main administration building. Chinese people were similarly taking photos. That, it seemed, was acceptable even as the larger parade was not.

So, every once in a while, I expect I’ll run into reminders that the rules are different here. As long as I am a guest, I will comply. Anything else would be ungracious, to say the least.

Eastward ho! China beckons

The Chinese embassy has made it official now. My visa for a semester-long teaching gig at Tsinghua University in Beijing just popped in the front door. So it looks like a year’s preparation will pay off with a nearly four-month stay beginning Sept. 8.

I’m stoked.

The program, organized by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., and backed by my Dean, Gary Kebbel, and the far-sighted folks in the administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is thrilling. I get to teach two classes to budding Chinese journalists, grad students in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua. They are keen to learn about business and economic coverage and about multi-media journalism.

For my part, I get to learn first-hand about the world’s second-biggest economy as it pushes even further into the global limelight. It will prove to be a fascinating, if paradoxical place, I expect. A “developing country” that is nearly 4,000 years old. The U.S.’s biggest creditor and yet a place with one of the lowest per capita incomes on the planet. A planned economy that seems to work, mostly anyway.

The university I’ll teach in is commonly ranked among the top three in the country. China’s current president, Hu Jintao, studied and taught at the 100-year-old school. Its journalism college, however, dates back to just 2002, as this technologically minded university — sometimes called the MIT of China — is still developing its humanities offerings. The ICFJ, led by China hand and former BusinessWeek colleague Joyce Barnathan, has been involved there since just 2007. I’m told the students at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication will include some of the brightest kids in China, the likely leaders in their organizations in the future. I’m hoping they will challenge me as much as I challenge them and that, in my small way, I can make some lasting impact that will affect they way they see – and influence – the world.

It’s a daunting prospect. Will they behave like American students – in good and bad ways? Will they question and argue, for instance (probably not, I’m told, since deference to the teacher is a Chinese cultural trait)? Can I teach them about the cut and thrust of good journalism? Will they understand American-style journalism at all, or have a wholly different notion of the mission of media? Just think about how much some major pubs in China get quoted here as, more or less, the voice of officialdom.

Then there are the personal issues. Will the government particularly care what I have to say in the classroom or on the Net? Will it pay attention in either place? There are so many academic visitors to China from the U.S. nowadays that keeping track could be impossible and pointless for folks in official ranks. The Chinese want what we have to offer, especially in areas such as business and economic journalism. They think it a crucial skill as their business communities grow and globalize, and they’re right about that.

I’m going, however, as much as a student as I am a teacher. I’ve always felt that missionaries were fundamentally arrogant, assuming that they were bringing the truth to the ignorant masses. I’m a bit contemptuous – though usually more amused — when they knock at my door. So I’ll pack a sense of humility along with my syllabi. Yes, I can teach my young charges some useful skills – just as I do back home in Nebraska – but I expect I’ll learn far more from them and their country. China, after all, does have a few years on us in the U.S. as a civilization.

I plan to keep a blog of my experiences. This opportunity will vastly enrich me as a teacher, not to mention how much it could broaden my worldview. The three-week trip colleague Bruce Thorson and I took to Kazakhstan with eight students last year was good preparation. It gave me a sense of how people in a developing place look on us in the West, and on how they look on life in general. I expect to get more than a glimmer of that in the coming semester and look forward to sharing that both here and in classes to come.

Stay tuned. Should be one heckuva trip.