[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]
I came across the following exchange (translated from the original Chinese language) on a technical news site today. This series of comments come from Xiaonei, a Chinese blog site, following a post about the recent global economic meltdown. (The writers’ names have been obscured for reasons that will become obvious):
AAA: Well written!! But why can’t I share it [i.e. link it to social media sites like Facebook or LiveJournal]?
BBB: Yeah, I can’t share it either. Must be because it’s today!
000[the author]: Well, I can post it, you guys should be able to share it….
CCC: [a few comments about the actual content of the article]
DDD: I guess Xiaonei is having problems recently. Anything with numbers seems to run into problems.
AAA: Anything with certain numbers runs into problems around this time of year….
EEE: I’m sure this maintenance is perfectly normal, as it is for all other Chinese websites right now. [sarcasm]
BBB: There is no spoon~~! [this in English]
FFF: Wow, nice word choice guys.
Mystified? You wouldn’t be if you had to deal with state censorship on a day to day basis. Today – the day the comments were being posted – marked the beginning of a worldwide observance of the 20th anniversary of the disruption by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army of the pro-Democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students, citizens and onlookers died when soldiers, backed by tanks and other armoured vehicles, advanced on the square, shooting as they went.
While protests had erupted in larger population centres throughout the country and continued for some days after Tiananmen Square was re-taken, the focus of the 1989 protest was in Beijing. Despite the involvement of nearly 1 million people at the height of the protest, most Chinese have little or no access to factual accounts of the events.
Those who remember the events, or who wish to speak about them, are left with few options save the kind of oblique references seen in the comments above.
(The phrase ‘there is no spoon!’ is a reference to the 1999 movie The Matrix, in which a young computer hacker discovers that he is being kept captive in an oppressive computer-generated virtual reality. In this context, the comment appears to be an angry refusal to accept the reality being foisted upon the writer.)
Following a crackdown on so-called Web 2.0 sites like Facebook, MySpace and their Chinese-language counterparts that encourage sharing of comments, photos and links to information of interest between friends and peers, many sites took a novel course. As this column goes to press, over 500 websites are reported to have been brought down for ‘non-technical maintenance’.
One of them, thequietsnow.com, offers the following message on its main page (again, rendered here in English – spelling and grammar per the original translation):
Due to a reason we all know this site is presently under maintenannce.
The site will be under non-technical maintenance from 3. Juin to 6. Juin
For a harmonious environment, to make an appeal to create a harmonious sociaty, I advice all webmasters and internet users to do the following during maintenance period;
1. Go out for a walk, get some fresh air, due to the hot weather, please wear a white t-shirt
2. Since the current internet is extremely unharmonious, in order to create a healty and harmonious internet environment, please put all your websites into “maintenance state”, in oder to provide a better net environment
3. If you don’t want to put your site into “maintenance state”, please change your site into black and white colors, in oder to provide a better net environment
4. Please put your site onto the maintenance spreedsheat.
The ‘spreadsheat’ in question is a file hosted at Google Documents, listing over 500 social websites and their related ‘maintenance’ messages. Most of them make the same kind of oblique references, implying that they would rather shut themselves down voluntarily than be shut down by the State.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of this protest is its inherent cynicism. Most of the commenters limit themselves to wry observations, similar to the way we might comment that ‘It’s getting a little windy’ as a hurricane approaches. Even the angriest among them resorts to an arcane popular culture reference.
The person who translated the comments above writes of the commenters:
[T]hey’re masters at not using any words censors would find suspicious. But they’re all at least aware of it, even if its a minor annoyance.
“And it will probably remain just that: A minor annoyance for most, perhaps making them remember, but they don’t care that much. The ones that really want to protest will just use text messages or IM anyway, and even the hardcore democracy types know where the line is drawn. For the most part, it seems really unnecessary. If they really wanted to organize protests, they’d have been organized long before the 3 days before the anniversary, and then use texting or cells or IM to expand. I doubt there will be any protests to speak of anyway- the Chinese sort of have a silent agreement here, they know where to draw the line.”
They don’t care that much. They know where to draw the line.
An entire society has adapted itself to living in an environment wherein they can go about their daily lives normally, as long as they do not make themselves or their opinions known to the authorities.
One is inclined to wonder whether Fijians will become similarly inured to the censorship regime imposed by Commodore Frank Bainimarama. Recent reports indicate that the state of emergency will be extended until August at least.
Perhaps the greatest danger of State censorship is its ability to integrate itself into daily life. Provided that its exercise doesn’t affect too many of the people too much of the time, it quickly becomes an environmental factor like mosquitoes, bad weather or the common cold. Just something to be taken in stride.
Because it’s today, because elsewhere in the world people are trained from birth to avoid dissent of any kind, we would be well served to imagine how we would feel, were we in the same boat.
My greatest fear is that most of us would get used to it.
Because it’s today.