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Maximum Security in the Middle Kingdom

August 21, 2008

I’ve been absent from this blog for three weeks, not because I lost interest but because I was away from Beijing on another scientific trip to Inner Mongolia – to the northwestern part of the region this time, near Mongolia proper.

Travelling in China during the Olympic period was interesting, to say the least. Faced with the minor risk of embarrassing demonstrations, and the more serious one of attacks by Uighur militants, the authorities instituted extra security measures all over the country. Some were probably imposed by local government, because they were very sporadic: one day, for instance, all of the foreigners in the party had to show passports before being allowed into a restaurant for lunch. Sometimes we had to fill out elaborate forms at hotels, and sometimes not.

We spent the bulk of our time in a small town very close to the Mongolian border. The place had two internet cafes, but partway through our stay the local government decided that foreigners should not be allowed to get online in a border region. The logic was apparently that we might see something sensitive and report it to the wrong people – whoever they might be. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby we could use the internet if accompanied by a Chinese citizen. Then, on the way back to Beijing, we had to negotiate two police checkpoints, one of which kept us held up in backlogged traffic for a good hour.

It’s hard to imagine similarly pervasive measures in Canada or another western country. This is partly due to a difference in political systems, but after seeing the Chinese security apparatus in action I think there’s also a gulf in cultural sensibilities. My Chinese companions didn’t seem to perceive the petty restrictions and frequent identity checks as particularly unreasonable, but tolerated them in the same spirit that Canadians tolerate, say, airport security. Of course dissent exists, but my impression after nearly a year in Beijing is that the Chinese government – particularly the federal government – excites minimal resentment in most of the people most of the time.

The lesson for Canada is simply that we should respect their way of doing things, their rather different ideas about the appropriate balance between liberty and privacy on the one hand and security and social harmony on the other. We may not see entirely eye to eye, but we can still be friends.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. adamfritz permalink*
    August 26, 2008 1:17 am

    I too am not even remotely an expert in Chinese history. My point was more referring to the fact that if there are universal truths out there, then by definition they should be evident in Chinese society as much as in any other, and local examples tend to resonate more with people than exotic ones. Given China’s long recorded history, I am sure that there are many insights as to the ways of humanity that would be beneficial for all of us to take to heart.

    The idea of right and wrong is interesting. You are right that the vast majority of issues reside squarely in the gray zone of “it depends”, but I tend to believe that humans are drawn to the question of how a life should be lived and how far we can boil things down until they become universal truths.

    Environmental issues seem to be easier to classify as such these days since they are based on scientific observations of the physical limits of the planet. But saying it is “wrong” to destroy the Earth is still based on our own perceptions. Nature doesn’t really care either way, as it will patiently rebuild itself long after we’re gone.

    Human rights debates are a tougher argument since they are based on people and how people interact, and there are many views on this. It is especially hard when you get caught in the chicken or the egg debates over individual vs communal rights. Still, over the past 50 years people around the world have taken pretty impressive steps towards agreeing on a few key areas that mostly reflect how we all think a life should be lived. Don’t torture. Try not to kill. Respect women and children. Try to get along. Whether we think that utopia will eventually materialize is besides the point, what we are searching for is a shared vision to reach for.

    I think the bigger question is not what is right or wrong (that will always be up for debate), but rather who has the right to an opinion? Is authoritarianism fine so long as the majority are comfortable with it? Are sovereign states still the proper vehicle to allow questions of global significance to be decided upon? Should we leave it all up to individual choice as to where and how people want to live?

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    August 25, 2008 6:09 pm

    Renee and Adam — Thanks for some thought-provoking comments. It’s interesting that you both zeroed in on the issue of things that are “just wrong”. I suppose I should lay a couple of cards on the table at this point, and acknowledge that I’m a fairly uncompromising moral relativist. I don’t believe in right and wrong as objective concepts, but only as categories invented by people to describe things they find intuitively desirable or undesirable.

    Even if you find it hard to accept this philosophical position, I hope we can agree that it’s generally counterproductive to try to help people without taking their own perspective into account. For instance, we could say to the Chinese government “you must allow your people complete freedom of speech”, but if most Chinese actually prefer to live in a society where speech is somewhat regulated then we would only be proposing a change that would make them less happy. For this reason, I’m extremely skeptical about attempts to impose western notions of human rights on other cultures. I don’t think of this as an especially politically correct position – just a realistic one.

    The environment is another matter, since China’s actions in this sphere affect us all. We should try to persuade them to get serious about cutting carbon emissions, for example, sooner rather than later. But even here, we’ll get much further by laying out our case in a friendly and non-confrontational way than we will with Harper-esque blustering.

    Renee — I had to look up Kapuscinski, although after doing so I realised that I’ve read at least one of his pieces – on Shia Islam in Iran. For others who may be reading this, Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist. His Wikipedia page says that he was jailed 40 times and actually sentenced to death on four occasions, none of which actually proved fatal. Given that nobody threw me in a Chinese prison, interesting as that might have been, I’d have to say my experiences fell somewhat short of his!

    Adam — Your point about learning from Chinese history is a good one. I’m no expert on this topic, but I’d say the main lesson the Chinese have taken from their recent history (say the past 150 years) is that China must become strong in order to avoid being pushed around by external powers. I can’t really say I blame them. But did you have some alternative “lessons” in mind?

  3. adamfritz permalink*
    August 25, 2008 1:01 am

    A difficult balancing act. As much as I am a supporter of political correctness, I am also aware that the social stigma of being non-PC is enough to stifle some healthy and necessary debates.

    As is true of most things, I think there is truth to both views – there is much value in other ways of doing things, but some things are just plain wrong. Human rights and environment are the areas that try to get at the universal rights and wrongs, but it is not always easy to see them in the here and now. The fuzziness usually has to do with the concept of equity – you did it, so why can’t we?

    It’s hard not to be seen as a hypocrite as we sit in our consumer-driven creature comforts telling others of all the lessons we’ve learned. I suspect we would be better off learning from the wealth of knowledge contained in Chinese history, and sharing the same lessons they undoubtedly have already learned, but may have forgotten along the way.

  4. reneethewriter permalink
    August 24, 2008 8:31 pm

    Cor, good to see you back here.

    Enjoyed the “our man in China” immediacy of your descriptions – some of your experiences seem to edge toward the “Rzyard Kapuscinski” level re guard checks etc?
    I’m guessing no where near but still…

    Re the Lesson. Interesting. Yes. I agree. But then, many of my associates, some more respectable than others, accuse me of being, on my good days, “soft on China.”

    Do you posit an approach that too easily overlooks what so many others seem bent on exposing: environmental and economic abuses by the Chinese super-structure, in addition to human rights and health concerns. Even as i write this, i’m aware of your fair-minded approach. But how does one balance acceptance of “another way of doing things” with “that’s wrong”?

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