top of page
  • Robert Lovell

Propaganda in the Library?

Propaganda in the Library? CBU Students Defend Chinese Censorship.

Canadians take freedom of speech and freedom of the press for granted; the same cannot be said for those living in China.

I went to the above presentation anticipating a story about dismissing stereotypes and misconceptions – instead many of my worst fears about Chinese politics were confirmed.

The speaking event entitled “Mythbusters: China Uncorked”, invited 3 MBA students to give a crash course on their country of origin, China.

The talk spanned many topics of Chinese culture, but for me, the most concerning portion of the afternoon occurred during the question time, when the first question was about the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square.

For the purposes of this story, the respondents’ names were excluded. The transcript included below has been reproduced with very minor changes for grammatical clarity only:

Questioner #1: “…Most of you weren’t around to remember the oppression of 1989, when the massacre that happened in Tiananmen Square, when the student protests were crushed. And I just have – just before you answer – I have a memory of that, because I was on the board of the Canadian Studies Association in 1989; we were meeting jointly with the International Council of Canadian Studies. There was a Chinese delegation that had come for the first time to Laval University, to take part in that, it happened at the beginning of June 1989.

When the delegates were there, we heard in the news about how the tanks had gone into Tiananmen Square and how students were being shot and crushed. And the Chinese delegates – they were devastated. Most of them didn’t go back to China, they became refugees in Canada. And I was still on the board the following year – there was a Chinese delegation the following year – and it was obvious that these people were hand-picked, they were being – there was even a senior bureaucrat who was making sure that no one said anything critical. Ever since 1989 that whole openness, you know 1989 that was the time when the Berlin Wall came down. In China, students were demonstrating in the streets, they were hopeful for a change in – a real change in Chinese society. We’ve heard nothing since then but people who just toe-the-line and do not criticize. So my question is your generation, do people – has the government managed to completely erase the memory of the massacre of 1989 and the repression that followed with thousands of people being locked up, or do you simply not talk about it because you’re not allowed to talk about it?”

The iconic image of “Tank Man”, a symbol of ultimate defiance in the face of overwhelming power

Respondent A: “The memories cannot be deleted anyway, because those are existing in our brain we’re not computers. But we’re not – to be honest – we’re not allowed to talk [about it] in public actually. And I only know the truth, what I’ve been told, is my fifteen – because we were born, we were also born after 1990s, which means we didn’t experience that period of time, and the first time that I know it, knew it, was in my fifteen years old and it was told by one of my teacher who’s teaching politics and economics in my high-school. And after she talks about those events and she was asking us not to tell what the story is to others, and after I go abroad I search it on YouTube because YouTube is banned on the inside.”

“But what I have learned is before the government send the tanks or the – or shoot the students, the students are protesting on the streets and they use the petrol and the gas oil to try to suicide themselves, and they were staying on the Tiananmen Square, and they do not eat and they do not drink, so which for me I don’t – which for me I couldn’t understand because I wasn’t born in that period of time.”

“Other opinions from public, they are saying, some of the leaders in the protest are actually the spying from the Western culture – that’s why the government are taking this so serious.”

College and University students on strike for government reform 4 May 1989. One month before the massacre

Several audience members let out audible groans and exchanged looks of disbelief at these last comments, but I think this is a testament to how effective the Chinese Government’s censorship and misinformation campaign has been.

In China people cannot speak openly about the Tiananmen Massacre. Phrases and characters related to the event are censored out of internet search results and banned in both public and privately-run media. To say information on the event is restricted would be an understatement.

Caper Times: “What are your opinions on freedom of the press in China? There are a lot of cases of widespread censorship; If you say something online chances are it will be deleted, or you can face jail time for speaking out against the government. What’s your opinion on this, and why do you think the government is against freedom of the press?”

Respondent B: “China wants to show the international [community] … wants to show that China is a stable country, [that] we don’t have any problem, [that things] are going very well, and we will develop very fast … I think that’s why they censor”

Respondent C: “Actually, censor[ship] is perfect… my family own and operate a private media company, and my father told me there are 32 characters that are banned by the Chinese government … I think the deeper reasons the government controls these words and like the public – ban the public – stop to talk about topics because the government wants citizens [to] live peaceful. They don’t want citizens and residents [to] be scared. Because sometimes when public knows too much, it means too much – not stable. Society will come to too many options. When too many options comes, it means – [presenter searches for the appropriate word, someone from audience supplies chaos] – Yes [, chaos].”

The People’s Daily newspaper, official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party

The belief that censorship is a necessary part of society is not a fringe view in China. Many Chinese view it as a necessary evil in order to preserve national unity—or at least, that’s the sense I gather from a handful of conversations with Chinese students.

That being said, it’s important not to paint everyone with the same brush and fall victim to thinking in terms of stereotypes. Even somewhere as conformist as China, people have a diversity of political opinions—though they may not be as free to express it.

Questioner #3: What can you say about your experience being in Canada?

Respondent B: “Actually, in Canada I feel more freedom. I can talk more broadly about any topic. Back in China, I would think ‘if I post some comments online, someone will say “oh, you are not allowed to talk about it” and the police will get you. So, in here I think, I [am braver] to talk about like our President and, not in China, I always [say] “oh it’s good, it’s perfect” and I won’t talk about it.”

The Chinese Communist Party Congress

Event organizer and Associate Professor of Political Science, Dr. Terry Gibbs knew the speakers as students in India, where she first saw their presentation.

I asked Dr. Gibbs what she thought of the striking difference in attitudes with respect to censorship of the media between Canada and China. She prefaced her answer by saying China is not her area of expertise.

“Definitely there is a more sort of institutionalized, what we might think of as, conformity to some degree. But I think there’s something to be said for the ways in which the media function say here, compared to there. There things are very visible. The party is visible. The way the media is controlled is visible. The way we might see people conforming is more visible.”

“If we turn the camera over to say, North American society, and we see the consolidation of the media, corporate control of the media; the fact that most people read the main sources of media still even though we have all this independent media, and it’s largely driven by particular perspectives.”

“And in our culture there’s also a real conformity to these mainstream perspectives. We just don’t see it in the same way because, from my perspective, we have an illusion of freedom of choice. So people actually think they’re not conforming, and yet we buy in to say, the growth economy at all costs despite climate change, we buy in to a lot of things—that it’s good to consume all the time. And advertising controls most of our media.”

“… they’re both problematic and they uphold systems, but in very different ways.”

“I think part of something like Mythbusters is also saying [that] in understanding other cultures we need to give a lot of space, and we’re going to have those first reactions and that’s normal and healthy. But in order to have the understanding, give it space and opportunities for ongoing conversations…”

China-Canada political relations are currently strained following the Canadian arrest of Huawei CFO, Meng Wanzhou. Meng is charged for her involvement with a Huawei subsidiary Skycom, which allegedly conducted business in Iran despite US sanctions. This led to what most consider the retaliatory jailing of two Canadians, and a Chinese Foreign Ministry official promising further “grave consequences” for Canada.

This event was part of “Mythbusters,” a series of talks aimed at dispelling myths and stereotypes related to culture, working towards a more inclusive, welcoming community at CBU, and giving marginalized groups a chance for their voices to be heard. Another presentation on the topic of Mental Health is planned for the New Year.

4 views0 comments
bottom of page