Sandlund: Critical Information

China reminds us of the value of searching for objective truth.

by William Sandlund | 9/14/17 12:45am

I recently returned from three months studying and interning in Beijing. I noticed something unsettling when I returned to America: I had stopped Googling things. When I had a question, I simply let it formulate and then vanish. In China, I did not have a VPN on my phone and relying on Bing is like being led by a blind guide through the ill-lit cave of the Internet. It once returned a WikiHow page on how to raise a child when I looked up some song lyrics. And so I stopped trying to find things out.

Having grown up in Singapore, I was less bothered than many Americans by governments limiting personal freedoms. I thought the relationship between individuals and states was flexible, and while freedom is an important ideal, it was just that — an ideal, subject to the practicalities, realities and exigencies of statecraft.

Travel should broaden perspectives. Being in Beijing, perhaps the world’s most concentrated center of political power (note: concentrated), did just that. I began to realize my belief in authoritarianism as morally negotiable was partly a contrarian pose. When I came to America for college, I instinctively wanted to challenge people’s reaction to what they thought of life in Singapore, because many Americans have a uniquely unquestioning reverence for “liberty.” I do not think I was wrong to challenge the idea of pure and unadulterated freedom. No such thing exists. Singapore is more “free” than China and less so than the United States. Many Chinese citizens I talked to tellingly thought of Singapore as a liberal democracy.

Intellectually, I am still tempted by the cultural relativism implicit in China and Singapore’s respective rejection and questioning of western democratic values. But I cannot truly reconcile this stance with my own experiences over the past months. In particular, information control and censorship under the Chinese Communist Party is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate and subdue China’s population. There is no alternative ideal of statecraft being explored in such a practice beyond the maintenance of absolute power. The most frightening thing about their policies is how effective such techniques can be in the 21st century. Technology has made it easier than ever to manipulate humans, who have become like docile animals grazing on pastures of digitized information.

You cannot use Google, YouTube, Facebook, The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal in China, to name a few sites a reader of this column would probably miss. That is frustrating, but it is in many ways bearable. What I could not stomach was when I started to read Chinese publications such as the People’s Daily or when I tried watching China Central Television. These news outlets are no more than mouthpieces of the government promoting whatever policy has been settled on behind the impregnable red walls of Zhongnanhai. I began to realize the battle for control of information in China is fought on two fronts. The state must first limit alternative viewpoints, then saturate the environment with its own perspective. I found the second element particularly maddening, partly because I could not bear the thought of a casual commuter being exposed to such inane reading material on the morning bus.

The saddening realization is how effective these methods are at achieving their aims. Many of my young Chinese friends, although highly educated, were nationalistic to a surprising degree, essentially regurgitating the party’s stance on issues such as the South China Sea or the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile program. Some readers might point out that many Americans are unquestioning in their support of our foreign expeditions, often seen as acts of bullying by nations such as China. That is true, but there are also many Americans vocally critical of our government. What distinguishes democracies is disagreement; out of discourse comes a closer approximation of the truth.

Many basic truths are not accessible in China. The way we like to talk about access to clean drinking water is how we should think of being able to find out a simple fact. For instance, when conducting research during my internship, I needed to determine the total number of dams and their total electrical output in China. The information on a government site was outdated, so I called the relevant government agency, only to be told I would have to pay for more recent records. This may seem harmless, but the obfuscation of the truth with certain ends in mind permeates every aspect of society. My Chinese professor only found out about the death of dissident Liu Xiaobo two weeks later when I mentioned it in class. The articles I could read when not using a VPN called him a criminal and puppet of the west. When I finally read his obituary in The New York Times, I started to cry. At the heart of my sadness was a sense of the unfairness, the pettiness of it all. That pettiness belies a deep insecurity harbored by the Communist Party. Fear starts with rulers and trickles down to the ruled.

As President Xi Jinping consolidates political power in the run-up to the 19th National Congress, he is also consolidating China’s historical narrative. Besides the Communist Party’s recent tussle with Cambridge University Press over suppressing academic articles that touch on subjects such as Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre, a more chilling development has surfaced. Glenn Tiffert recently discovered that Chinese authorities are quietly deleting journal articles from the 1950s, now mostly online, with ease. Anything that challenges the orthodoxy promoted by Xi is simply erased with a few keystrokes.

I am left wondering — the Internet was supposed to make all of this better. It was supposed to equalize information and give everyone access to knowledge. Instead, it has gotten easier to channel masses of people into certain modes of thinking. It is hard enough to break out of these channels in the West, where algorithms largely determine what we see. But in China, only a small number of educated people really care enough to look beyond the Great Firewall. And even that has become more difficult with China’s recent crackdown on VPNs. Critical thinking in the 21st century has gotten that much harder. There may not be such a thing as objective truth; however, we must at least preserve it as an ideal if we want to make our messy modern world work.