Thursday, October 14, 2010

Letters from China

 I've been visiting China for more than forty years, first in the Navy with obligatory stops in Hong Kong (and an occasional excursion into the mainland, usually on a dare.) More recently I have visited China as a businessman and an amateur observer of the scene, always remembering what an English friend told me when Britain returned HK to China: Hang around here a thousand years and you might learn something.

On each stop in Hong Kong our ship was asked to give blood to the local Red Cross. In exchange we would get more orange juice than our bladders could handle--and the day off.  As far as I could tell, it was mainly the enlisted men giving blood, which has a certain bloody irony to it. Every port we visited, we were asked to give blood. I could understand donating blood in Iwakuni, close to Hiroshima. And even Sasebo, Japan, not far from Nagasaki. We were young but knew from our training about Blast, Heat, and Radiation. And we saw the faces.

It probably struck no one aboard my ship as a little odd that we stopped on this symbolic mercy mission in Japan on our way to Vietnam where we would deliver 2,000-pound bombs to aircraft carriers to drop on North Vietnam. I have a feeling the U.S. Navy is donating blood there now.

I bought my first suit in Hong Kong and the tailor threw in all the ties I could carry.  That I lost these treasures in a typhoon in the South China Sea only makes them more precious. Who could have guessed this precious stuff would become commodities at Wal-Mart in a little more than a generation. This is delicately referred to as the balance of trade.

I'm not in the Navy now but in the media business. The pursuits are not all that different as on each watch we spend a fair bit of time at sea. I have worked in about twenty countries and none is as interesting as China.  Every Western publisher goes into China understanding the Hobson's choice; that is, don't worry about the censorship, press restrictions, inability to own editorial production.  Just having Western magazines and books in China--forget about newspapers for a moment, would help transform the country from within.

Last time I checked, of the top 10 lifestyle magazines in China, 9 are imports.  I've watched the quality, range, design, and editorial presentation of Chinese domestic magazines improve in the last decade.  However, the basic publishing formula has not changed. Censorship, which largely means self-censorship, is alive and well. That pesky Internet firewall, perhaps the most robust in the world (or at  least on par with Saudia Arabia and Iran), is as muscular as ever. Symbolically and actually, the Chinese government is the Editor and Publisher of last resort.

Today The Wall Street Jornal reported that two dozen Communist Party elders called for abolishing the system of censorship in favor of a system of social responsibility. They were equally emphatic about the Internet: "The Internet is an important platform of exchanging information and opinions. Internet regulators shouldn't arbitrarily delete online posts and comments, except when it really involves national secrets or infringes on personal privacy."

The letter writers complain that they enjoy less freedom of speech than Hong Kong had before its return to Chinese sovereignty. The authors demanded the abolition of the "invisible black hand" of censorship which controls China's media.

On the one hand, China is blasting Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Noble Peace Prize as a traitor. On the other hand, senior Communist Party officials have openly challenged some basic assumptions of a state-controlled media.

By all means keep a close eye on the Liu drama. But pay even closer attention to this Chinese manifesto.

So far, so good: no blood.

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