Critics of Chinese philanthropist Chen Guangbiao (陳光標) might have recoiled in horror over the weekend after the tycoon said China was like a “big brother” to Taiwan. The fact of the matter is, China is indeed a “big brother” — but in the Orwellian sense.
In their tumultuous history of interaction with Chinese, which has intensified amid efforts by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to foster closer ties across the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese often complain about China’s lack of knowledge about Taiwan. In the same vein, survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 point to continued efforts by Chinese authorities to filter information on the mass demonstrations that led to the crackdown, with the result that ordinary Chinese now suffer from collective amnesia.
So much for the observation by Chinese intellectual Wang Hui (汪暉) that “history, experience and knowledge are resources we must use to overcome ourselves in our present state.”
Or, for that matter, the “one country, two systems” formula often touted for Taiwan, which risks sucking Hong Kong — the first experiment — into China’s cognitive limbo: More than two decades after the Tiananmen Square protests, former student leaders like Wang Dan (王丹) and Wuer Kaixi (吾爾開希) now find themselves unable to enter the territory.
The list of domestic abuse by the state and manmade catastrophes covered up by Beijing — from the Cultural Revolution to protests by Tibetans and Uighurs — is long and has given rise to a polity that, though it is becoming increasingly educated, remains largely uninformed about its past.
There are now signs that censoring information about domestic affairs is insufficient to ensure China’s stability. News reports over the weekend revealed that amid unrest in Egypt, where thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets calling on the largely undemocratic regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, Chinese censors have blocked the word “Egypt” from microblogging Web portals, such as Sina.com and Sohu.com, with searches for the word saying results could not be displayed “in accordance with regulations.”
It is not difficult to establish the rationale behind China’s action: Beijing hopes to prevent events in Egypt (or other examples of the “color revolutions” that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union) from setting an example of political mobilization in China. Although Chinese censors cannot block every platform, just as they cannot prevent occasional reporting on government corruption or natural catastrophes, their actions nevertheless set the boundaries of “acceptable” political discourse.
The ever-changing nature of what is and isn’t permissible, added to the randomness by which the law is applied, is often sufficient to deter would-be inquisitive minds from engaging in dialogue “to overcome themselves in the present state.”
This leads to avoidance and self-censorship, with the consequence that over time, an increasingly wealthy, educated and mobile population remains unable to outgrow its antiquated mold and incapable of tapping into other people’s experiences in their quest for modernity.
The implications for Taiwan as it develops closer ties with China are alarming. Given that challenging the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) grip on power remains unacceptable to Chinese authorities, those in Taiwan who regard Ma’s strategy of engagement as a means to liberalize — and perhaps help democratize China — are in for a rude awakening. If knowledge of distant acts of rebellion, such as those that are reverberating across Egypt, is deemed too dangerous, one can only imagine the kind of treatment that would be meted out much closer to Beijing, when events involve a people with a similar culture and language.