Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Great Wall(s) of China

Contrary to what you may have heard, the Great Wall of China cannot be seen from space - at least not with the naked eye. Nor is it one structure, despite the persistent use of the singular form of “wall” in the title. Since “the wall” is actually a series of non-continuous barriers, the effort to sequester the so-called Foreign Devils never quite worked out for the Chinese - despite building 3,889.5 miles of fortifications. In the thirteenth century, when the Mongols invaded, they simply rode their horses through large gaps in the walls. Whoops.

Exposure to the mythology-shattering truth, however, did not diminish my sense of astonishment upon seeing the wall in person. My visit to a partially-restored, partially-crumbling section of the Great Wall called Jinshanling exceeded all my expectations. The scale and sturdy craftsmanship of the structure was certainly impressive, and the steep mountains to both sides were striking. Mostly, though, I enjoyed running, jumping, and climbing on what was once regarded as a critical piece of war infrastructure as if it were designed to be a playground.

The irrelevance of the wall as a defensive structure is in some ways an apt metaphor for modern China’s open door policy and embrace of global capitalism. Yet from a cultural perspective, the idea of linear barriers is still very much alive. In Beijing, metal fences line the streets, walls surround apartment buildings, and stainless steel railings guide crowds through busy subway stations. Most troubling is the walling off of information.

Trying to access this blog, for example, is very difficult in China. Much like the Mongols, you must ride through the gaps in the Great (Fire)wall. Instead of a horse, the appropriate technology for breaching this barrier is a Virtual Private Network (VPN), a service that tricks the Chinese internet police into thinking that you’re accessing Blogger from the United States (Blogger, like many popular websites with user-produced content, is banned in China). While all the Chinese people I've talked to about internet censorship are fully aware of the practice and find it a bit annoying, none of them felt that the way the government controlled the flow of information was a serious issue. It's very difficult for me to understand this point of view. For all the flaws in our system, it really is nice to know that freedom of speech is valued and for the most part protected in the United States. Cue "And I'm proud to be an American / Where at least I know I'm free . . ."


Nick Fishbane said...

Indeed, understanding why only a small minority of Chinese feel that the government control of information seriously impacts life is not obvious. But I have a few theories:

1) Since Mao, there have always been liberals in China, but no open questioning of the government has gone unpunished. And after Tiananmen Square, the common man decidedly stopped trying. At the same time, with improving economic conditions comes political apathy, and since Chinese youth know very little past the culturally closed-off world of the mainland, the worst they will get is annoyed at why Google is so unstable now (but youtube? facebook? twitter? won't be missed: they have their own versions).
2) Chinese culture is steeped in Confucianism, which teaches filial piety. Chinese youth don't question their teachers in class and rarely disobey their parents wishes. Therefore, whatever comes from the Xinhua news agency is mostly accepted as fact because it comes from the mouth of the "Great Provider".

However much this offends me as an American, one has to remember: what would a country of 1.3 billion be like if most of the population was displeased, distrustful, AND politically active?

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