Monday, November 26, 2007

Totalitarian Head Games

It's a bit depressing to realize a lot of modern Americans can't really distinguish a shopping mall experience from liberty.

Even some Westerners are impressed by the new China. American swimming superstar Michael Phelps said on a visit to Beijing, the host city of the Olympic Games next August, “Going to the hotel, we see Subway, 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Sizzler, McDonald’s. It’s like a big American city. They have everything we have in the States.” In fact, they don’t. They lack basic freedoms.

Those little things, like being able to gather together in a group and discuss politics, don't seem like they mean a lot when you're so busy shopping. The authorities seem to know this. They seem to bank on it.

But Chinese citizens can’t form a political party, or any other organized group, without official permission. They can’t choose their leaders. Even the ordinary CPC members have no say in their hierarchy. Sisci, Beijing correspondent of the Italian newspaper La Stampa, writes in the China Economic Quarterly that “there is something like a 75 percent avoidance rate on personal income tax” because few people anywhere choose to concede taxation without any representation. “There is a political pact,” he writes. “The government allows tax evasion in return for political obedience. So far, the middle class has acquiesced: it prefers to pay less taxes and not vote, rather than buy its right to elect the government by paying more taxes.”

[ed.: There's something amusing about an Italian horrified by a nation that avoids income taxes, but there you go.]

Phone calls, text messages, and emails are likely to be screened, and many Internet sites—such as Wikipedia and BBC News—are blocked or filtered by the 30,000 “net police.” Bloggers must give their real names and identity card numbers to their Internet service providers, which must in turn make them available to the authorities when asked. Tim Hancock, Amnesty International’s campaign director in the UK, says, “The Chinese model of an Internet that allows economic growth but not free speech or privacy is growing in popularity, from a handful of countries five years ago to dozens of governments today who block sites and arrest bloggers.”

In some ways it is ham-fisted and bureaucratically muscle-bound. But in others it operates with supple skill. Perhaps the most wicked trick is to let artists and writers understand some things are off-limits, which will incur penalties -- but not tell them what those topics and images are.

All films must be vetted by the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television. All print media are government- or party-owned. The party’s propaganda department has recently introduced a penalty scheme for media outlets that deducts points for defying government guidance. Twelve points means closure. Every inch of public territory remains tightly defended, although warnings are usually not explicit, leaving maximum space for artists to choose to censor themselves. Leading new-wave filmmaker Jia Zhangke, winner of the top award, the Golden Lion, at last year’s Venice Film Festival, says, “If we don’t touch the taboo areas, we will have a lot of freedom. But then those areas grow larger. If your tactic is to guess what the censors are thinking, and try to avoid their concerns, you are ruined as an artist.”

And here the masters of moral equivalence will demand to know, "how is that different from the effective censorship of the lumpen consumer public in a ruthless free-market system?" Yeah. People stopped buying Dixie Chicks album because their politics pissed off their former fan base. That's just like what happened to Akhmatova, isn't it. A whole century just passed was a blood-sodden lesson in The Difference, and some people still don't get it.