Godwin Tan on the political censorship in Asia
Advances in technology have allowed people from all over the world to communicate with each other and air their views to a large audience. In response, governments in Asia have significantly increased the level of political censorship. To my mind, such censorship is now nearing the point of danger and foolishness.
In China, political censorship is mainly done through the Golden Shield Project (known as ‘The Great Firewall of China’): cyberpolice shut down dissenting websites and block users in China from accessing ‘politically sensitive material’. Anyone searching for protests or historical blemishes, like the Tiananmen Massacre, would receive an error message. Also, Chinese sites posting such ‘inflammatory information’ are ‘harmonised’ (‘he2 xie2’, in Chinese), a euphemism for censorship. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) alone determines the definition of ‘politically sensitive material’. The definition is flexible, vague and cannot be challenged by alternative political groups.
This is problematic. Firstly, as historical annals reflect, this extra-legal discretion has been abused to protect the CCP and its officials from constructive criticism and even academic commentary. For their coverage of Chinese officials’ wealth, the New York Times was blocked from the Chinese market. Similarly, Professor Xia Yeliang was dismissed for, inter alia, discussing ‘liberal concepts of freedom and democracy’. It is fair to say that this stifling of political and academic discourse belittles the maturity and intelligence of the Chinese people. To an extent, such censorship reflects a government concerned with its own interests at the expense of its people.
Paper cannot wrap fire
Silencing the Other is not only an affront to the abstract liberties of the minority, it is also a grave mistake on pragmatic grounds. There is a common Chinese saying: ‘paper cannot wrap fire’. In China, with a tech-savvy generation on the loose, the general outlook on censorship and propaganda is one of disbelief and even mockery. Prolific users have sought ways to bypass the firewall. Also, it is common for a picture of a river crab to be posted whenever a site is shut down by the government, a pun on the government’s preferred euphemism–‘harmonised’ and ‘river crab’ in Mandarin are near-homophones.
Underlying the Chinese humour is a darker form of resentment and sense of rebellion that the party seemingly fails or chooses not to notice. History has shown that the constant assertion of superiority of state over people will only cause burgeoning opposition, a possibility in the future of this Asian Dragon. In the artificial attempt to hide its flaws and magnify its achievements, the government ironically does a great disservice to itself by relying on political censorship.
By stretching a hand to muffle the Other, the government in fact hands over a loudspeaker and elevates that small voice to an international platform. In Singapore, Filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love was banned for ‘undermining national security’. The film features interviews of former Singaporeans who have fled the country to avoid arrest under the Internal Security Act. In the film, the interviewees voiced different political views and conceptions of Singapore’s brief history. In response to the censorship, many Singaporeans have rushed to Malaysia to watch the film. Political censorship ironically fuelled more interest, and people showered more attention on Tan’s film. Tan’s film may have been obscured and outshined by the modern blockbusters if the government did not intervene.
To my mind, instead of confronting Tan’s alternative narrative of Singapore’s history with transparency and reason, the government chose the seemingly easier (but ultimately futile) way out. The government avoided the argument and may soon realise that it was counter-productive. This incident may sow a seed of distrust in the hearts of Singaporeans and compel more people to investigate and challenge the government’s perspective. In a democracy like Singapore, it has often been stressed that such political judgements are the exclusive prerogative and responsibility of the elected representatives. While this may be true, such censorship is nevertheless largely futile in practice and most certainly harms the chances of the ruling party in the next election.
What are you hiding?
Instead of strong and powerful governments, instances of political censorships reflect deep-seated weakness, insecurity and in some cases cowardice. The world is increasingly educated. The people of the 21st century take what they see on the Internet or the newspaper with a pinch of salt. I believe that the step forward is not to conceal or dismiss alternative views. Instead, governments must overcome challenges with transparency, reason and truth. Of course, this is easier said than done. However, in the long run, this is the only way to truly win the people’s hearts.
Featured image credit: Tyler Menezes