Double standards are no friend of freedom

Is the concern over Chinese censorship driven by a real desire for liberty, or fury that the Chinese have blocked the words of Western experts?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Internet censorship in China is rife, and crude. When I was in Beijing earlier this month, I searched the World Wide Web in vain for information about the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. I could see on the Google listing page various articles I wanted to read, yet when I clicked on them I was taken to that all-purpose error page that irritates web surfers the world over: ‘This page cannot be displayed.’

To the uninitiated, it may have seemed that the internet connection was a bit iffy – working one minute, as you browsed Google, but disconnected the next. In fact, the blocking out of information on the 1989 massacre – as well as websites on human rights, large sections of Wikipedia, and web material on Falun Gong (the fresh-air-and-exercise cult) – is part of what is known as the ‘Great Firewall of China’.

In the late 1990s, the Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China spent US$800million on developing the Golden Shield Project (the official title of the ‘Great Firewall’). It is a vast system that uses firewalls and proxy servers at the internet ‘gateway’ to block certain content, by preventing IP addresses – those belonging to websites with ‘dangerous’ material – from being routed into China (1). To get around it, I ended up having to email colleagues in London, ask them to find and open the articles on Tiananmen Square I wanted to read, and then copy and paste them into an email and send them over.

As someone who has campaigned for free speech my whole adult life – and who edits an online magazine which believes free speech is the most important freedom of all – I was horrified to see sections of the internet restricted in this fashion. China needs internet freedom, and it needs it now.

So why do I feel uncomfortable with, possibly even angry about, the campaign by Western human rights lobbyists to highlight internet censorship in China in the run-up to the Olympics? Because, like so much of the Western attitude to China today, the global effort to ‘put pressure’ on the Chinese to ‘live up to their Olympic promises on human rights’ seems to be underpinned by double standards – and double standards are no friend of freedom. Instead they denigrate freedom, turning ‘free speech’ and ‘liberty’ into weapons to be wielded by the apparently pure West against its inferiors in the cruel, exotic and barbarous East.

China’s pre-Olympics censorship of the Web, and its alleged plan to spy on and monitor foreign reporters and others who visit Beijing during the Games, has caused a storm of controversy this week. There was fury in the leader pages of the Western press when it was revealed that the website of Amnesty International, including its new report alleging that the human rights situation has worsened in China during the Olympics preparation period, is not accessible from the Main Press Centre for the Games in Beijing.

Amnesty says the unavailability of its site – and ‘a number of other sites’ – is ‘compromising fundamental human rights and betraying the Olympic values’ (2). The shock that the Chinese would dare to block Amnesty’s site in particular was captured in a Guardian cartoon titled ‘China’s Olympic human rights effort’: it showed a grinning (possibly demented) Chinese official using the Olympic flame to set fire to a document titled ‘Amnesty International Report on China’ (3).

Meanwhile, an American senator has claimed that the Chinese government is planning to ‘spy on’ reporters in Beijing, by monitoring their internet use in hotel rooms and what they write (4). In what has been labelled a ‘global drive’ to force through change in China, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and vast numbers of commentators are calling on Western governments, the International Olympic Committee and the commercial sponsors of the Games to use the opportunity of Beijing 2008 to pressurise China over its censorship-and-spying antics.

This raises an immediate, possibly ominous question: why is there such far-reaching and furious fuss over China’s Olympics-related authoritarianism when other countries that have used the Olympics as a pretext to rein in people’s freedoms have escaped international condemnation largely scot-free? It seems the Chinese are continually and explicitly judged by a very different standard to white countries within the Western fold.

Some of the news reports on China’s ‘Olympian authoritarianism’ have said that such things would have been ‘unthinkable in Athens’ (5). What short – or possibly selective – memories people have. During the Athens Games of 2004, in the name of protecting Greece and international athletes from a potential terrorist attack, the Greek authorities instituted a vast and permanent system of spying and surveillance.

The Greek, in tandem with the ‘Olympics industry’ (6), transformed Athens into what one Greek academic labelled a ‘superpanopticon’ – that is, an open prison where everyone and almost everything was monitored by the authorities. The Athens Olympics were turned into a ‘testing ground for the latest anti-terrorist superpanoptic technology’, which involved ‘exploiting real and perceived terrorist threats to prescribe extremely high security requirements’ (7).

If the Chinese want to spy on people, they could learn a lot from the Greek authorities. In 2004, Athens installed a vast computer surveillance network, consisting of thousands of hidden cameras and microphones across the city that could analyse dozens of languages for any hint of ‘terrorist chatter’. Under the advice of the British authorities – who, having installed more than 20 per cent of the world’s closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras on our tiny island over the past 10 years, are the undisputed kings of CCTV – the Greek also introduced hi-tech CCTV cameras on the streets and roads around the Olympic village (8).

Greece spent an Olympics-record US$1.5billion on security. More than 70,000 security personnel, including 16,000 soldiers, patrolled the country’s borders and the perimeter of Athens. American troops assisted Greek troops in a mammoth three-week training exercise codenamed Shield of Hercules 2004, teaching them how to respond to potential ‘catastrophic scenarios’ (there was none, of course). The then US ambassador to Greece was pleased with the results of the joint American-EU-Greek clampdown in Athens, arguing: ‘The job here is to put as many locks, sirens and alarms on the house called the Olympics so that the burglar goes to some other house.’ (9)

Do you remember any angry global campaign against the Greeks for ‘betraying Olympic values’ with their locks, sirens, alarms, cameras, microphones, fighter planes and barbed wire? No – because there was none.

The message of this disturbing double standard – where Greece was assisted by Western elements in its Olympian authoritarianism while China is condemned by Western elements for its Olympian authoritarianism – seems clear: it is okay for ‘us’ to sacrifice liberty in the name of security, but not ‘them’. Our denigration of rights is somehow more acceptable – more legitimate, well-meaning, ‘evidence-based’ perhaps – than theirs. Inexorably, unwittingly, the judgement of China by an entirely different standard to Western countries is rehabilitating the old, foul idea that Easterners are in some way more naturally wicked and malicious than we Westerners: a ‘cruel race’, as Bridget Jones’ mum referred to them.

Likewise, China does not have a monopoly on internet censorship. Across the globe, nervous and isolated elites have reacted to the rise of the internet – this open, worldwide, border-shattering means of communication – with angst and authoritarianism.

In Britain and America, under the ostensible guise of ‘protecting children from harm’ – that is, protecting kids while they are using the internet and also removing child porn from the internet – semi-official bodies like the Internet Watch Foundation have demanded the removal of hundreds of websites and webpages. As Marjorie Heins pointed out in her important book Not in Front of the Children: ‘Indecency’, Censorship and the Innocence of Youth, for almost 150 years authoritarian governments have used children as a pretext for censorship, as a kind of ‘moral shield’ – and that continues in the relentless effort to regulate the internet today (10).

Often, Western censorship of the internet is more sophisticated than Chinese censorship. Where in China a vast government-funded wall reduces potentially interesting content to blank error pages, in the West we have the rise of frequently non-state funded filtering systems – ‘intelligent software’ and internet-blocking technology that can be installed on computer networks to keep at bay ‘offensive’ content, which can include everything from sexual images to swear words to James Joyce’s Ulysses (it has indecent language).

As the pro-freedom campaign group Electronic Frontier Foundation has argued, the spread of filtering systems ‘promotes a norm of censorship’. The American Civil Liberties Union – which successfully overturned the 1996 Communications Decency Act, America’s own attempt to crudely censor the internet – argues that rating systems and filtering and blocking technology, often installed outside of the auspices of the state, can pose an even ‘more insidious threat to free speech’ (11). Today it has been announced that British MPs want YouTube to vet its content and filter out anything ‘offensive’.

Again, double standards seem to be at play in the debate about China’s internet censorship. Unwittingly perhaps, the obsessive focus on China’s censoriousness gives the impression that the West, being apparently free and liberal, has the moral authority to lecture the Chinese about freedom of speech. It is a bit like entrusting Reggie Kray to dictate to Ronnie Kray about the best way to treat business competitors.

This is why I am uncomfortable with the current crusade against Chinese authoritarianism – because double standards denigrate the idea of freedom rather than making it a reality. The implicit treatment of Chinese authoritarianism as being somehow culturally ingrained, and more morally offensive than anything done in the West or by Western governments around the world (in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan), denigrates the humanity and universality of freedom; it turns ‘liberty’ into a weapon of realpolitik to be aimed and fired at the Chinese by Western politicians, corporations and commentators who themselves have turned a blind eye – or actively supported – the rolling back of rights.

It treats freedom as something that can be delivered to the Chinese on a silver platter by their caring superiors in the West, when in fact only the Chinese masses themselves – with the support of people in the West who genuinely care for liberty and freedom of speech – can make China a free country. It is in the process of demanding freedom and fighting for it that people become free. They cannot be made free by an Amnesty document, a strong-worded condemnation of the Communist Party of China by President Bush, or by Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to opt out of the Olympics opening ceremony. To imagine that the Chinese people can be liberated by such actions only flatters the moral pretensions of morally bankrupt Western elites and underestimates the history-making potential of the Chinese people themselves.

Reading the coverage of the Chinese censorship-and-spying controversy, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some in the West are really angry because the Chinese have dared to block access to their apparently sacred documents. That is why there is such widespread alarm that Amnesty’s material won’t be accessible from the Beijing Media Centre, complete with images of ruthless Chinese officials burning Amnesty documents – as if this is the only or the most important form of censorship enacted by the Chinese regime. This skewed focus reveals what seems to lie behind the current crusade against Chinese authoritarianism: a desire to preserve and elevate the arguments, even the ‘divine truth’, of elite Western experts over foreign governments.

I want freedom of speech for all the Chinese so that they can openly discuss their political and social problems and resolve them; some seem more interested in defending the freedom of Western NGOs to lecture the Chinese about how they must change. The current moral crusade against Chinese authoritarianism may flatter Western activists, but it will not liberate China.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

(1) Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China, Wikipedia

(2) IOC Caves In To China’s Demands On Internet Censorship, Amnesty International, 30 July 2008

(3) China’s Olympic human rights effort, Guardian, 30 July 2008

(4) Senator: China orders hotels to help spy on Internet users, CNN, 30 July 2008

(5) Olympics reporters find Web censored, Toronto Star, 30 July 2008

(6) Security and Surveillance in the Athens 2004 Olympics, International Criminal Justice Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, 220-238 (2007)

(7) Security and Surveillance in the Athens 2004 Olympics, International Criminal Justice Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, 220-238 (2007)

(8) Fortress Olympics, by Brendan O’Neill, Rising East, January 2005

(9) Fortress Olympics, by Brendan O’Neill, Rising East, January 2005

(10) Not in front of the children?, by Sandy Starr

(11) Not in front of the children?, by Sandy Starr

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Topics World


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