10 January 2013

All quiet on the southern front

The news from this end of the world as of yesterday has it that the Southern Weekend 《南方周末》 has cut a deal with the authorities, after a week-long row over censorship of the paper’s New Year’s ‘special editorial’ advocating constitutionalism by the Guangdong provincial propaganda ministry. Anyone who is surprised by this should not be, in fact, because (in spite of what its defenders say) the Southern Weekend is still as much an instrument of the Party as anything else on offer from Mainland China; all of its vaunted criticism of the Party tends generally to be aimed at the fact that it is still not exactly like the modern, neoliberal-dominated Republican Party in the US. Indeed, its past coverage of current events in the US attests directly to this fact. So my sympathy for the Southern Weekend in particular, and in these circumstances, is quite limited: so ‘independent’ are they, that they do not care to critique those global vested interests which have an impact on the quality of life all over the world, and they spit on the people who protest those vested interests in defence of what little they have.

And, like the Republicans (particularly of the neoconservative variety), they champion ‘freedom of speech’ only for those who share their ideology, as borne out by the fact that Southern Weekly journalists and pro-Southern Weekly protesters engaged in street brawls with counter-protesters. Their rationale? ‘These leftists are paid agitators of the government, twisting the truth with propaganda. We had to do something about it.’ Sounds a lot like the rationales the Red Guards used during the Cultural Revolution against suspected supporters of the ‘old society’.

That said, I agree with the principle behind the protests, even if I feel their object to be wholly undeserving. Freedom of speech is a truly tricky subject for me, because I have seen the absolute form of this liberty abused often enough to recognise its real dangers to people’s life and limb (the Plame affair, as well as WikiLeaks), and because I have seen the chilling effect an environment without such freedom has; each extreme is equally to be eschewed. I feel like Dr Samuel Johnson lay his finger perfectly on the crux of the matter when he wrote in his commentaries on Milton,
The danger of such unbounded liberty and the danger of bounding it have produced a problem in the science of Government, which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil authority shall have previously approved, power must always be the standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every skeptick in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion.

That said, the political environment surrounding speech rights in China is so far skewed in the direction of bounding and its dangers, that it is impossible indeed not to sympathise with those who demand an accounting. Even a few of China’s home-grown traditionalist conservatives (themselves no warmongerers, free-trade enthusiasts or worshippers of Mammon) have spoken out in favour of Southern Weekly and the constitutional principle of free speech rights (see also Sam Crane’s piece here).

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