by Becky Hsu
A new book written by a former CNN journalist in Beijing, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, documents how the Chinese government has been surprisingly successful at managing the flow of information online during the past ten years.
Why the Chinese government spends so much effort on controlling information (i.e., censorship) is certainly perplexing, and we may be tempted to give a deceptively straightforward answer: they want to stay in power, and dissenting voices are a threat. Perhaps more baffling, then, are these questions: Why are they so determined to keep a tight hold on religious activity? What is so threatening about religion?
An explanation to both questions may lie in a particular series of ideas deriving from classical philosophy. In classical Chinese thought, one of the responsibilities of the government is to protect the population from damaging ideas. It’s very possible that this notion carries over into today’s society.
The government has had a tradition of controlling beliefs because there is a longstanding Chinese idea that the mind and action are closely connected, argues Donald Munro, professor emeritus of philosophy and Chinese at University of Michigan. Therefore, to create a good society, the belief is that the mind should be subject to public control:
Chinese justifications for the control of beliefs also rest on certain assumptions about the nature of the mind. The key psychological assumption is that such mental events as knowing and believing are usually accompanied by covert promptings to act, likely to emerge as open conduct. Because such acts may affect others, the existence of the promptings brings private beliefs and opinions into the public realm. This is a normative claim, namely that opinions are justifiably subject to direction by agents (the rulers) representing those who might be affected by the promptings. The position on the nature of the mind is shared by Confucian and Chinese Marxist thinkers. (1977: 15)
Munro also argues that, unlike western liberal thought, there is no divide between public and private selves, where an individual’s beliefs are private and should be immune from manipulation. However, this conviction that individual beliefs cannot be infringed upon is more difficult to uphold as completely and consistently than we would like.
Throughout American history, we have also struggled with the question of how to balance the ideal of unlimited freedom of speech with what is beneficial to society. For example, when the Ku Klux Klan wants to hand out flyers, most people do not want the government to allow it, even if it violates freedom of speech principles. There are instances when Americans prefer censorship, although it is not always perceived that way.
Personally, I do believe that freedom of speech is good (in fact, crucial) for a flourishing society—and I am not saying that I like censorship. I am also not saying that the Chinese government is uninterested in power.
Some different ideas of morality may be tangled up in the way that the Chinese government handles both the media and religion. In their pursuit of power, are Chinese officials unabashedly acting in conflict with their own moral beliefs? I don’t know. But we should desist from oversimplifying the matter (“they’re power-hungry and immoral”). We know that motivations are a complicated matter (people do things for many reasons—usually a mix of self-interest, moral principles, and institutional pressures, among other things). If we want a more complete understanding of the matter, we cannot overlook the moral ideas that lay the groundwork for the actions, as troubling as they may be.