The first time your correspondent experienced the petty authoritarianism of everyday life in China came after just one week in Shanghai. “Dancing is strictly prohibited, by order of the Public Security Bureau,” declared a large sign slapped on the door of a popular bar. The local cops, it seemed, had decided to outlaw harmless fun.
That was back in 2000, but little has changed. So many serious abuses of human rights occur every day in China that it seems churlish to moan about the irritations of living in a country managed by paranoid prudes in bad suits, even if they do have a state-military apparatus at their disposal. Perhaps the only thing more galling than China’s po-faced propagandists are grouchy expatriates who flock to the comfortable, cosmopolitan cities of Beijing and Shanghai, and always have the option of going home if they don’t like it. So please forgive this rant.
But petty irritants matter in a country that wants to project itself as modern and forward-looking, that wants its students and universities to compete globally, and that wants to attract the best brains and companies. In many respects the public sphere has opened up tremendously over the past two decades, but China still remains backward compared to its competitors in Asia.
Here are a few things that foreign executives should know before they close their office at home and move to the world’s new economic superpower.
Any package you receive from abroad will be inspected by the parcel police at customs and its contents removed if they fail to meet China’s high moral or low political standards. Your correspondent once received a message from customs explaining that it had confiscated a bundle of magazines sent from the UK “due to their lascivious content.” They contained photos of a handful of scantily clad models, which proved too racy for the moral censors.
Your favorite websites will be blocked, unless you remember to subscribe to a proxy service or virtual private network (VPN). Even then, YouTube and many other sites may be unwatchable, because routing content through a third country is too slow. And last month, Beijing’s censors finally figured out how to block determined users from accessing one of the most popular paid-for VPNs.
Foreign-based email services will barely function during important political meetings, such as March’s National People’s Congress or October’s Party Congress, when the Propaganda Department scours the web for content deemed threatening to the proceedings. Ditto any period of political strife, whether it be scented with jasmine or Xinjiang mutton.
And you should expect imported copies of foreign newspapers and magazines to arrive with offending articles about China literally ripped out. In March, passengers on flights to Beijing from Hong Kong were required to hand over copies of the (sadly) innocuous South China Morning Post before they left the aircraft, for fear of stirring revolution.
These may appear mere trivial inconveniences, but they breed resentment and suspicion, and show journalists and politicians that China is not a country you can trust. And this petty authoritarianism should matter to any policy maker who wants the country to graduate from foreign plagiarizer to indigenous innovator. China will remain a second-rate economy as long as information flows remain in the grip of the Party’s control freaks.