Tuesday, April 29, 2008

more censorship

Another development in our ongoing experience with censorship in China is worthy of mention.

Of late there has been extensive discussion in the (foreign) news of the Tibet unrest, the Olympic Torch relay, the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the environment – The Chinese press carries some of this, but with an obvious Chinese bias.

While I have been leery of discussing any of these issues in my formal classes, I have done so with interested students in my office. The result has been some interesting discussions, with my goal (sometimes more effectively achieved sometimes less so) of increasing my interlocutor’s openness to other, sometimes opposing views.

In these discussions I invariably stress that I am not engaged in attempting to convince them of my “correct” opinion – but rather to expose them to alternative viewpoints that challenge the official Party line. A lesson in critical thinking, the power of the media and the benefits of openness to opposing opinions.

Yesterday I was informed in passing by a friend that the university would be hosting a professor from a neighboring university who is an expert on Tibet. The professor was to give a lecture to mid-level campus officials on the history of Tibet in China, the riots and the efforts at dialogue with the Dalai Lama. I was intrigued and excited at the opportunity to hear a lecture that would summarize the Chinese position on Tibet – one that was not filtered through the mass media.

Oddly, no-one seemed to be aware of the lecture, and students and most faculty were not invited. Since the lecture was about to begin, I contacted another colleague (with whom I’m conducting a project) on campus for information on the venue. She seemed surprised about the lecture and said she was unaware of it. Odd, I thought.

After figuring out the lecture venue, I somewhat apprehensively decided to nonetheless attend. Standing outside the lecture hall (they had already begun) I listened through an open door to decide if I would be able to understand the accent of the speaker (I find a thick local accent almost incomprehensible). Deciding that I would probably understand around 70% of the content, I chose to enter.

At that point I noticed some startled faces in the audience staring at me through the doors (interspersed among the many sleeping attendees). The head of the foreign affairs office was among those who spotted me and quickly came to me before I could enter the lecture hall.

He asked what I was doing there, and after I explained my interest in the topic he asked who had told me of the lecture… I obfuscated…. With a smile…. He then proceeded to explain that the lecture would be boring, that it was really only for mid-level officials, that I could learn everything that was being said from the internet, that it was irrelevant to my research and that he lacked the authority to allow me to enter – all with a smile….

I, innocently explained that as a political scientist I was quite interested in the topic – even if not directly relevant to my research. I also described how eager I was to enhance my understanding of the Chinese position on Tibet in order to achieve our shared goal of greater mutual understanding between China and the West (I’m still smiling here)

The official explained that in fact the lecture covered three points (I mentioned these earlier) and that he would be pleased to invite me for dinner and tell me all about the lecture… but (smile) I couldn’t attend.

At this point I bowed to the inevitability of the situation, thanked him and departed. There will be no dinner, of this I am confident. Ah, and as for that friend I called about the venue – the one who didn’t know about the lecture? Well, since the lecture was in the same building as her office, I thought I would pop in to discuss a project we have been working on. Imagine how surprised I was to discover she wasn’t there! Her office mates explained to me that she was busy attending a lecture on Tibet.