Career: Senior Global Category Manager | Emerson Process Management | St.Louis, Missouri, USA
Freedom of Expression in China
Once when I was a little girl, my friend Lin and I started learning piano together. We both dreamed about having our own pianos some day. But later, Lin’s mom got sick, so sick that she couldn’t even recognize Lin. The family was almost broke because of that. The day my dream came true, I told Lin, “I’m sorry that you can’t get the piano you dreamed. You can play mine. ” Lin shook head, “Ming, you’re wrong. I love piano, but that’s not important any more. All I want is for my mom to get well and to have a happy family again. I would give up everything to get our peaceful life back.”
As everyone knows, the Chinese government has tightened controls over newspapers, television, the internet, and other media over the last decade. Many websites have been filtered, or even blocked by Chinese authorities. Countless articles in other countries have been published attacking Chinese authorities and calling for freedom of expression in the country. Perhaps surprisingly, the Chinese people that I’ve discussed this with, both in China and in the U.S., rarely express such concerns. Most support and believe in the necessity for this kind of governmental restraint.
As much as freedom of expression matters to the Chinese people, they cherish the harmony of the economy and social environment in which they live and thrive even more.
Culture and history are powerful forces that we should never overlook. China has a unique culture that is deeply rooted in Confucianism, and this has led to strong beliefs about loyalty and obedience over countless generations. Even contemporary Chinese education reflects this conservative culture: beginning in early childhood, students are rarely given the chance to speak up and experience freedom.
History plays an important role in this perspective. The past 5000 years in Chinese history have not been a period of peace and freedom, but of invasion, war, and social conflict. The Chinese people have constantly witnessed and hence remember killing, humiliation, and poor living conditions during long periods of volatile social conditions. After the establishment of People’s Republic of China in 1949, peace was restored and living conditions improved, and people have felt grateful.
Unfortunately, the Cultural Revolution taught everyone another bitter lesson about freedom of expression. During this decade from 1966 to Mao’s death in 1976, a chance mistake such as sitting on a piece of newspaper with Chairman Mao’s picture on it could lead to imprisonment, and any language that was slightly against the party could result in charges as severe as being a “traitor.” During this time the notion of freedom was translated into “guilt” and “disaster.” The country learned to become more cautious and obedient afterwards.
What’s going on now in China? On the positive side, we see fast economic growth, great technology advancement, and vastly improved living standards and infrastructure in most areas. On the negative side, the gap between the rich and the poor widens, there are major problems in the medical and education systems, and the country faces severe environment challenges. As a country of 1.3 billion people, 56 nationalities, and hundreds of native languages, the priority of the leadership in China is to build a harmonious society. Without social harmony and political stability, a country as vast and complex as China could easily devolve into chaos. Who would then be willing to invest in China? Who will then have energy and resources to build the education and medical systems? Freedom and democracy are still new terminologies in Chinese vocabulary, and they are new for reasons that are grounded deep in the history and culture of this ancient but thriving land.
Here in the U.S. I see another point of views from people of varying backgrounds, expertise, objectives, personalities, and understanding of China. All I’m hoping and asking of you is to be open-minded and curious about the reasons behind the facts. For my friend Lin, the dream of a piano could not possibly surpass her desire for the well-being of her mother.