It’s not a good idea to talk about reining in government power over speech in China. It’s a worse idea to do a search for information on a subject like the Tiananmen Square massacre. The concept of innate human rights doesn’t exist in the world’s most populous country. Now China citizens will not even be able to turn to the popular online ‘encyclopedia’ Americans consult so much it’s one of the top Web sites in the world. Why aren’t Western media talking about this?
Debate on government powers over speech has long been part of a conversation in the United States, dating to our founding. Thus far, the First Amendment to the US Constitution has held strong in limiting government powers over speech. This doesn’t mean that from time to time, politicians haven’t attempted to limit speech, and it doesn’t mean that certain powerful tech companies didn’t assist these politicos in their attempts. There is, however, no blanket crackdown at the hands of the US government via the military.
China has flatly banned Wikipedia.
China recently figured in a story about the world’s arguably most powerful tech company, Google, leading many of us to see the irony in Google’s former Don’t be evil motto. Google then became Alphabet, changing the slogan to Do the right thing. The first motto was an absolute in many ways—we have a general idea of what constitutes true evil. The new motto is completely subjective. Who determines what the right thing is?
Google for years worked on behalf of China to build the communist controlled country (it’s technically a republic) a censored search engine. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the top corporate heads at Google claimed that was a good thing.
In the past, China has not hesitated to use lethal force to shut down speech, as was the case in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Within a few years of the massacre, China, after advocacy efforts from both major US political parties, was admitted to the World Trade Organization. Politics and profits make strange bedfellows.
Meanwhile here in the US, we see daily exchanges about censorship of websites and pages, banning of individuals from speaking at some universities, and outbursts of violence over political gear. I’m not sure what either side of the aisle hopes to accomplish in bans or censorship. If you can’t talk about something, you’ve lost rights you were endowed with at birth—no government gives you that right. Government can only limit it when permitted.
The Wikipedia ban is not a surprise to those of us who follow global news. China has long aimed to dictate their citizens’ habits, behavior, and even thoughts. There’s a lesson in that ban, however, and it’s one all Americans should heed regardless of political disagreements.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution has no equal. We should ensure that it remains strong, even if it does permit tech companies to practice censorship on their own, or even if it does permit people to say things that infuriate us.
Banning a site like Wikipedia is unimaginable to us. In China, it’s likely no one batted an eye, and Western media yawned as usual. The BBC, despite being in a country where you can be imprisoned or fined for politically incorrect speech, did cover the China ban. That, my friends, is truly ironic.
Art cannot flourish when repression and censorship are all-powerful. Freedom of expression is a necessary component to art.–(Kay B. Day/May 15, 2019
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