Saturday, January 24, 2009

Behind The Great Firewall

The fact that Obama’s inauguration speech didn’t resemble those given by Bush couldn't have caught very many people by surprise. One of the most immediately noticeable differences was that foreign policy callouts seemed reference the real world, instead of the cartoonish caricatures drawn by Bush almost every time he opened his mouth after 9/11. This shift hardly went unnoticed abroad- in China the line referring to “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” was hastily censored during the live broadcast, cutting abruptly to an anchor who clearly hadn’t expected to be back on camera until the end of the speech.

Actually, the entire incident is goofy enough that a return to Bush-style caricatures almost seems appropriate. Hearing only a vague reference that could technically apply to any number of nations, the Chinese government reacted by executing a bumbling act of censorship?! The official denial issued several hours later was just as clumsy:

“There are breakaways even when broadcasting China's own meetings," CCTV Deputy Director Wang Jianhong said. "Americans might care a lot about the presidential inauguration, but Chinese may not be very interested."

They may not be very interested, so CCTV cuts from the speech itself to a discussion of the speech instead? If my viewers were uninterested I’d probably change the subject entirely, instead of shifting to a bunch of guys boringly talking about whatever it is that allegedly bores my viewers.

All that aside you really must be in bad shape if, upon hearing a general reference to corruption, deceit, and dissent-silencing, you think “Hey, I fit the bill! He’s talking about me!” Note that other places referred to in the speech managed to sit through the entire thing: Germany didn’t censor the references to fighting fascism or dying on Normandy Beach, oil-producing nations didn’t block the lines about global warming, and the South didn’t* cut the references to racism** out of the broadcast***. Is there any better admission of dissent-silencing than silencing the mere suggestion that someone else, on the other side of the world, is generally against silencing dissent?

Blocking access to information about Tiananmen or Tibetan nationalism at least serves an obvious, if vile, purpose. If more Chinese people were to become aware that twenty years ago their fellow citizens fought and died to challenge corrupt one-party rule, or that it isn’t just a “small minority” of Tibetans who want out of the People’s Republic, the Communist Party of China would have a lot of explaining to do. Considering that many Chinese viewers might not have even linked Barack's sentence with the Chinese government to begin with, cutting the speech up seems to border on paranoia. The current economic crisis might make this an inopportune time to offend China, but it can still be hoped that in the future Obama will take more opportunities to remind the Chinese leadership that those who rule with corruption, deceit, and the silencing of dissent are truly “on the wrong side of history.”

* (or wasn’t allowed to)
** (along with Aretha Franklin’s performance, Joseph Lowery’s benediction, the racially-mixed crowd on the mall, and actually the entire rest of Obama’s speech)
*** (as much as they may have wanted to)


  1. Wow, JN, just wow..

    Well, today I read in my cases about the legal concept of instituting a "Chinese Wall" around an employee, also referred to as "Chinese Walling" person 'x'..

  2. Pretty amazing. I do love the fact that the phrase "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent — know that you are on the wrong side of history." immediately got them thinking of themselves.

    Pretty much proves the point, doesn't it?