Ian Buruma: Battling the Information Barbarians





[Ian Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. His latest book, "Taming the Gods," will be published in March.]

In 1661, Adam Schall, a Jesuit missionary from Germany and astronomer at the Chinese imperial court, fell victim to jealous mandarins, and was sentenced to death for teaching false astronomy and a superstitious faith. He was only just saved from being strangled, when a sudden thunderstorm convinced his judges that nature had spoken against their verdict. Father Schall died soon after. But the defensiveness of the mandarins, who saw his foreign ideas as a threat to their status, would be a recurring theme in Chinese relations with the outside world.

So, is it true after all, what they say about clashing civilizations? It is tempting to see the official Chinese response to Hillary Clinton's speech on Internet freedom in that light. Spurred by Google's announcement that it might pull out of the Chinese market in protest over censorship, Mrs. Clinton talked about Internet freedom in terms of universal human rights. Her speech was promptly denounced in a Communist Party newspaper as "information imperialism." Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu claimed that China's regulation of the Internet (banning references to Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwanese independence and so on) was in keeping with "national conditions and cultural traditions."

The claim of universality is indeed an important facet of American culture, rooted in the American Revolution and Protestant ethics. It is considered proper for a U.S. secretary of state to give voice to the ideal of universal human rights. Just so, a Chinese official sees it as his duty to assert the uniqueness, or even superiority, of Chinese culture. This was true of Confucian scholar-officials in the imperial past. It is still true today.

Thought control, in terms of imposing an official orthodoxy, is a very old tradition. The official glue that has long been applied to hold Chinese society together is a kind of state dogma, loosely known as Confucianism, which is moral as well as political, stressing obedience to authority. This is what officials like to call Chinese culture....

This is why foreign criticism of Chinese politics, or Chinese infringements of human rights, is denounced by government officials as an attack on Chinese culture, as an attempt to "denigrate China." And Chinese who agree with these foreign criticisms are treated not just as dissidents but as traitors. The term "information imperialism" is clearly designed to evoke memories of the Opium Wars and other historical humiliations. Chinese are meant to feel that foreigners who talk about human rights are doing so only to bash China....

The dilemma for the Chinese elites, ever since the early Christian missions, is the question of how to adopt useful Western ideas while keeping out the subversive ones. Intelligent Chinese knew perfectly well that much of Western knowledge (how to construct effective guns, say) was not only useful but essential as a way to make China strong enough to resist foreign aggression. But the tricky part for scholar-officials was how to use that knowledge without weakening their own position as guardians of Chinese culture....

Once China opened up to the world for business again in the late 1970s, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the old problem of information control emerged once again. Deng and his technocrats wanted to have the benefit of modern economic and technological ideas, but, like the 19th century mandarins, they wished to ban thoughts which Deng called "spiritual pollution." The kind of pollution he had in mind was partly cultural (sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll), but mainly political (human rights and democracy).

Deng's attempt, which was only partly successful, was made far more difficult by the invention of the Internet, the problems and possibilities of which were left for his successors to deal with. The Internet, which has boomed over the last few years, cannot be totally policed; there are simply too many ways to dodge the censors. But China, with its army of cyberspace policemen, has been remarkably effective at Internet control, by mixing intimidation with propaganda. The intimidation encourages self-censorship, and nationalist propaganda creates suspicion of foreign criticism. It is not hard to find well-educated Chinese who buy the line about "information imperialism."...





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