One of Barack Obama’s most singular charms, in particular compared with his predecessor, is his ability to charm and persuade through speech. His administration therefore hoped that despite the fact that the US brings very little to the table on Obama’s first state visit to China, Obama would nevertheless be able to make a positive impression by speaking directly to the Chinese people. Unfortunately, even this symbolic victory was denied him. While Obama was granted a town-hall style meeting, the sort he prefers in which he can engage in give-and-take with an audience and demonstrate his candor and empathy, the forum he was granted by Beijing was stilted and scripted. The audience was composed of students who had been "trained" before attending, and delivered the standard party line that the US should not attempt to impose its views on China. The White House reporter pool was sequestered from the event in a special viewing room, and the entire affair was only broadcast on Shanghai local television. Xinhua, which had promised to broadcast streaming video of the event, instead simply made a wooden transcript available on its website. Most English and Chinese-language reporting on the event here appeared to describe Obama as concurring with Chinese exceptionalism, although the China Daily did note that he had argued that some values are "universal." Which values? A Chinese youth could be forgiven for believing that Obama was referring to the freedom to make money, not speak one’s mind.
It is unquestionable that China’s political discourse has become more liberalized since the Mao era, when ideological conformity was enforced so rigorously and yet so confusingly as to render political debates a garbled mess of subtle signals that all too frequently descended into overwrought personal attacks on opponents. The success of magazine’s like Caijing and Southern Metropolis Daily, both of whom have broken news that caused significant political discomfort, testifies to the newfound respect the Party has for freer flow of information. And yet, and yet. Caijing is now on the ropes after the departure of editor Hu Shuli, the magazine’s founder and main claim to credibiity. Hu Jintao’s entry into office was marked by increasing restrictions on the press, in particular regarding reporting on disasters caused by pollution and other public risks, which is arguably the greatest practical benefit a free press provides its readers. And those who hoped that the growth of the Chinese internet, in combination with the increasing political clout of its middle class, would defeat censorship have been sorely disappointed. The middle class has been successfully bought off with material prosperity for now, and while it may not trust the Party on this detail or that, it largely buys in to the Party’s view of China’s place in the center of the world, and the Party’s place in the center of China.
All of this is indeed China’s business, but China is beginning to export this attitude. Yesterday the UN forced the OpenNet Initiative, an organization that lobbies against internet restrictions, to take down a poster criticizing China at a UN conference after an "unnamed member state" objected. UN officials said that all posters were banned, but reporters noted that other organizations’ posters, including corporate advertisements, remained up. Around the world, national governments – including the US – are knuckling under Chinese pressure to deny its opponents platforms to criticize it publicly overseas. At the same time, state media is preparing to go overseas to help spread the Party line abroad.
Politics aside, the business ramifications are serious. Opening up the media sector to significant foreign investment seems as far away as ever, and Google’s recent travails seem to indicate that the door to foreign internet services here is closing, not opening. The domestic cost will also be high. It is unquestionable that China’s culture is distinct. but it is not as unique as the CCP would have us think. Other Asian societies with strong cultural similarities manage to have freedom of speech without devolving into chaos. Nor is Chinese culture so homogenous as it looks. Chinese populations in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan appear to flourish under a variety of political systems with various attitudes towards political expression. But fundamentally speaking, Chinese people are human beings like everyone else. Speech is connected to thought, and restrictions on one affect the other. Scientific communities, for example, depend on free exchange of information and argument. Quality control systems depend on free, direct flow of information, which is why China has had such trouble building airplanes using hierarchical management systems. Is it any surprise that a society in which freedom of speech is curtailed is so stuck on producing low-quality knockoffs? Beijing says free speech would threaten stability, which is true when people are unhappy with the status quo. It also challenges stagnation of thought, and this is something Beijing should be more worried about.