Sunday, May 17, 2020

Harmonious Society Censorship Prefigures All Against All Political Violence


opendemocracy |  It is difficult to say if it was our friends that miscalculated the scope of the censorship, or if it was the Chinese government that miscalculated the scope of the new epidemic. For the reality quickly got lost, perhaps to everyone, under close surveillance of domestic reporting of the virus. After returning to the UK in January, a large part of my daily routine has been saving Chinese news reports and key commentaries on the virus through clusters of screenshots rather than simply saving the links. This was because ‘disharmonious’ web content would be soon deleted without a trace and during January articles related to the epidemic were censorship targets. In fact, due to the 8 hour time difference between China and the UK, it was not uncommon for me to wake up in the morning, only to find that half of the articles passed on by friends had already been removed or their access denied. To be sure, some of the censored content may have been fake news, but it was also evident that what remained in circulation adhered to the party-line.

More importantly, COVID-19 exposed an often-ignored character of how censorship works when it is effectively ‘constitutionalised' in the political system. Its ubiquity in governing rationales means that censorship is not necessarily centrally coordinated but is a layered practice. That is, censorship becomes a tool wielded at the discretion of multiple authorities and can be discriminately applied in accordance to local needs. For example, compared to many other less affected cities, in the early phase, Wuhan’s local media was subject to stringent censorship. According to a corpus study of Chinese official newspapers carried out by a media studies’ scholar at Hong Kong University, between 1 January and 20 January 2020, coronavirus was only reported four times by Wuhan local newspaper Chutian Dushi Bao, of which two were rebuking ‘rumours’ and two were news releases by the local health bureau. On 20 January, the day before President Xi Jinping publicly acknowledged the seriousness of the outbreak and 3 days before the Wuhan lockdown, local news was still celebrating that 20,000 free tickets to key tourist sites been handed out to the public with the expectation of a tourist surge during the Spring Festival holiday.

A key difference between democratic and non-democratic states in the response to COVID-19 does not hinge on lockdowns, but on what has been discussed and done to mitigate the various knock-on effects of lockdowns. For example, in the days following the UK’s lockdown in late March, discussion, and sometimes protests, on the welfare of different social groups filled mainstream news outlets: the impact of children with special needs, individuals in care homes, domestic violence, mental health and concerns for safety-nets for the self-employed. Of course many of these issues remain unresolved or only partially resolved, but this ‘explosion’ of public expression of concerns made many underlying social issues visible from the start.

In contrast, few such (pre-emptive) discussions on the social consequences of lockdown could be found in Chinese media. If one types in ‘domestic violence’ (家庭暴力) and ‘coronavirus pneumonia’ (新冠肺炎, the common way for Chinese media to refer to the COVID-19 pandemic) onto China’s search engine Baidu, the results are predominately news reports on the increase of domestic violence in the UK, US, Japan and other countries. Reports on domestic violence in China in the context of the pandemic were scarce. Of course, Baidu as the main Chinese search engine has long been criticised for manipulating research results, bowing to political and commercial pressure. Thus this might not be a fair representation of what has been discussed or done about domestic violence in China during the lockdown. But this perhaps further underlines my point. That is, social controversies within China are censored out of public sight, and thus out of public mind.

The true danger of political censorship, however, lies not simply in the absence of certain discussions, but in the nurturing of social acquiescence to this silence. For example, similar to other countries, medical staff were soon heralded as the contemporary ‘heroes’ in China. Images of the medical profession on posters paying tribute to them were predominantly male, yet published lists of medical staff volunteering to join the front line were largely female. I wrote a post on Chinese social media questioning this aspect of gender inequality. The response was mixed. While some commented that this was an ‘interesting point’, others disapproved of my ‘making a fuss’. One such criticism came from my own cousin, who, along with his wife, were front-line doctors. He believed that everyone was or should be preoccupied with fighting the disease. So why should I ‘distract’ this concentration with ‘the trivial matter of gender equality’? My cousin’s rationale echoes China’s development strategy over the last 40 years. That is, China has been exceptionally good at identifying one goal (e.g. fighting coronavirus) and concentrating the whole nation’s resources into achieving that goal (e.g. speedy reallocation of financial and human resources into the health system). Wider social discussions are considered as but a distraction. In fact, there is almost a ‘pragmatic’ argument for no discussion: even if issues were raised, given limited government resource and under-developed societal services, there is no capacity to address these problems anyway. So what’s the point of discussion?