Tea or Freedom?
Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times Op-Ed
December 13, 2003
Impressed by the boom in Internet chat rooms in China, I conducted
an experiment this week to test the limits of free speech.
several of these chat rooms I tried to post a message, in Chinese
and seemingly from an ordinary Chinese, declaring, "Why
is Prime Minister Wen Jiabao off in America kowtowing to the
imperialists when he should be solving more important problems
was censored. I tried again, posting a more subdued version
- and, again, it was censored. So my third version was milder
yet: "Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to America has
been very successful, but I wonder if perhaps he is wasting
too much time abroad instead of focusing on our own important
problems like unemployment."
turned out to be what Chinese journalists call a cabianqiu,
after the term for a Ping-Pong ball that just nicks the corner
of the table: legal by a whisker. The censors didn't intervene,
and I successfully posted that comment in three chat rooms.
that's the frontier of free speech in China in the information
age, and it reflects real progress. Sure, the thought police
toss Internet dissidents in prison, with 66 Chinese journalists
and Web scribblers currently behind bars, some facing torture
and beatings. Still, this is pretty much the first time since
the 1980's that the Chinese have had public forums in which
they can (very delicately) criticize top national leaders by
new emperor, President Hu Jintao, is presiding over this twilight
zone and trying hard - rather successfully - to convince the
population that he's a new kind of leader. Most Chinese I talk
to are very impressed by Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen, who project a humility
and compassion very different from the pomposity of the former
emperor, Jiang Zemin. My guess is that Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen would
win a free election if it was offered. Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen are
relentlessly photographed feeling the pain of the poor and the
underdog. Most important, they have begun to address AIDS in
a serious way.
as I travel around China and talk to everyone from peasants
to senior officials, I'm afraid the leaders' strategy will fail
and ultimately lead to upheavals in the coming years. The reason
is that China has always operated to some degree on fear, and
that fear is now eroding. Chinese don't protest when they are
most upset, but when they think they can get away with it: that
has been true of every upheaval from the 1956 Hundred Flowers
outpouring of complaints all the way to the Tiananmen Square
democracy movement of 1989.
since the Tiananmen movement was brutally crushed, China has
been fairly stable because its leaders and its citizens have
each been a bit afraid of the other. But the fear has steadily
ebbed, and my guess is that henceforth fewer overtaxed peasants
or laid-off workers will suffer in silence.
Mr. Nice Guy approach won't work," a senior government
official warned. "You can't govern by pretending to be
nice to everybody. You've got to make hard choices. You've got
to maintain control."
is not Communist any more. It increasingly resembles the kind
of complex (and corrupt) society that led to turbulence in South
Korea and Taiwan in the 1970's and 1980's. One window into the
country's changing values came this fall when President Hu's
daughter, Hu Haiqing, married one of the country's leading Internet
capitalists, Mao Daolin, in Hawaii.
government is simply losing control of China, which now has
78 million Internet surfers and 250 million mobile phones. It's
true that the middle class now has a stake in the system and
may be wary of Tiananmen-style mass movements, but there are
also deep grievances, especially among peasants and laborers.
decline of fear is welcome, of course, but it's also going to
mean a bumpy road ahead. In a city in Manchuria, I stopped in
a small restaurant and ordered a cup of coffee. The waiter asked
whether I wanted Nescafé, Maxim coffee, Swiss coffee,
Brazilian coffee, Blue Mountain coffee, mountain-grown coffee,
mocha coffee, iced coffee or Italian cappuccino. I can't help
feeling that when people get multiple choices in ordering a
cup of coffee, it's only a matter of time before they demand
choices in national politics.
I think that the long calm that followed Tiananmen is ending.
Exciting times are coming to China again.