Reflections on Obama’s visit to China

Rensi Ke

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Credit: Douglas

Credit: Douglas

One of the most recurring points that Obama made during  his  visit to China from Nov. 15-18  was what he termed “universal rights.”

“They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, whether they are in the United States, China or any nation,” Obama said on Nov. 16 at the town hall event in Shanghai, where he answered questions from university students as well as netizens (Internet users).

The next day, he reiterated that America holds “bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess fundamental human rights” during  the  press conference  in Beijing with  Chinese President  Hu Jintao

I found it interesting to see how The Los Angeles Times portrayed the facial expression of President Hu upon hearing Obama’s mention of the human rights issues: “As Obama spoke, Hu, standing near him on a stage, stared straight ahead, impassively.”

No wonder that American media would present Hu’s reaction in a negative light, considering that human rights were established as legal rights in the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, while the Chinese constitutional list of human rights was not complete until 1982.

Certainly, China has not kept up with the high pace of human right movements in the Western world. While many Western groups and movements have managed to achieve profound social changes over the course of the 20th century in the name of human rights, China suffered from dictatorship for 49 years and then the Cultural Revolution  during which the country witnessed  10 years of  deprivation of speech freedom.

Even till today,  people often  discourage young people from being too outspoken  by repeating the Chinese proverb “The gun shoots the bird with its head up.”

Such a Chinese proverb certainly apparently  contradicts Obama’s notion of Internet freedom: “I can tell you that in the United States the fact that we have unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength and should be encouraged.”

After  the interview with  Southern Weekend, Obama  reinforced his point in a letter to that press and its readers: “An educated citizenry is the key to an effective government, and a free press contributes to that well-informed citizenry.”

Here Obama intended to point out the causal relationship among press freedom, citizenry  cultivation  and goverenment  efficiency, but whether a free press will necessarily lead to an educated citizenry is debatable.

One  tricky problem  facing China, and probably many  Western countries too, is: To what extent should  a government intervene to protect individuals from infringement on their  speech freedom by other individuals or groups?

In the context of online expression, we are  discussing a more specific problem: How should a government deal with the abuse of Internet freedom? It might be surprising to say that China, a censorship-stricken country in the eyes of the Western world, is suffering from this problem.

On one of China’s biggest online forum www.mop.com, netizens are obsessed with discovering and exposing personal information of other citizens through networking, which is called “human flesh engine”. Although some government officials have lost their positions due to the exposure of their misconduct online, more  people have suffered from the infringement  on their privacy due to the entertainment-oriented “human flesh engine”.

Moreover, the aggregation of pornographic information, the upsurge of nationalism during the boycott of several foreign corporations and individuals, and the recurrence  of online personal attack due to the concealment of true identities, all speak for the chaotic liveliness of Chinese online expression and Chinese netizens’ unawareness of the responsibility that accompanies their freedom.

While American media bombards China with charges of hindered information flow, I am wondering why  it never bothers to learn some basic  facts about China. A 2006 National Geographic survey shows that 74% young Americans don’t know that Mandarin Chinese is the most commonly spoken native language in the world and 45%  of them believe that China’s population is only double that of the U.S.  (the true answer is four times).

Let alone some information that’s more important but neglected  in the  unhindered flow of information in America:

China has just lifted its people from poverty; the average salary of  Chinese citizens  is 1/34 of that of Americans;  the attendance rate in higher education is only 23% (America: 50%); millions of its people have grown up in an education system that stresses respect for authority and accordance with the majority. The above figures might give you some hints about the causes of the irrational Internet freedom in China.

President Obama claimed his belief  in Shanghai’s town hall event that “every coutnry must chart its own course.” But  his  arguments about  “universal  values” implied nothing but the difficulty anyone may find in living by his or her beliefs.

I definitely want to see a wider range of freedom on Chinese Internet, but I don’t expect it to come in the near future, and I would  say that  The Los Angeles Times observation of President Hu’s “impassivity” is a cultural misunderstanding: That’s  how a political leader with aplomb should  behave when his coutnry is on its way.

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