Sunday, April 05, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew passed on a bigger mute button to Xi Jinping

The other day, I was asked how and why I decided to come to the US given my commie-sympathizing formative years.

I didn't have to think much to respond to that because I have given it a great deal of thought.  It is simple: when I realized that I value and respect the rights of individuals, and that I can't sacrifice that for whatever the greater good is that somebody else decides, well, it was time to turn to the only place where expression seems to be least curtailed--the US.  It was an easy decision to make to pack my bags and head to the US.

That unwillingness to sacrifice the freedom of expression is also why I have often worried about the alarming developments in the old country.  (Like here, for instance.)

The concerns over the loss of individual's rights and the restrictions on expression are also a large part of why I am not a fan of the Singapore model of economic development, which got morphed into a Chinese model, which has won over fans all across the developing world.

With all the nauseatingly syrupy eulogies to Lee Kuan Yew, I had to make sure I would not puke on my keyboard.  The mainstream tributes never mentioned something like this:
Lee was the pioneer of capitalism with an iron fist. His People’s Action Party, though far less brutal than the Chinese Communist Party, has ruled over a de facto one-party state.
Who cares about the individual and the freedom of expression, eh, as long as there is "humming economy, material comfort."  Until his very end, Lee was not in favor of democracy as we understand it.  Even though the other humming economies of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea transitioned to democracies a long, long time ago.

China, which has put into place a Lee's model on steroids, appears to be get tougher on expression with every passing day.  Especially with its president Xi Jinping, writes Evan Osnos, my favorite China watcher:
a quarter of the way through his ten-year term, he has emerged as the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao.
The grip tightens, not only in Tibet or Xinjiang, but even along the eastern edges:
A decade ago, the Chinese Internet was alive with debate, confession, humor, and discovery. Month by month, it is becoming more sterilized and self-contained. To the degree that China’s connection to the outside world matters, the digital links are deteriorating. Voice-over-Internet calls, viral videos, podcasts—the minor accessories of contemporary digital life—are less reachable abroad than they were a year ago. It’s an astonishing thing to observe in a rising superpower. How many countries in 2015 have an Internet connection to the world that is worse than it was a year ago?
Who cares about the individual and the freedom of expression, eh, as long as there is "humming economy, material comfort."  And, of course, the need to make sure that the Party can preempt anything that could bring a collapse that happened in the Soviet Union.

As Osnos parenthetically notes, "Instagram, like Facebook, Twitter, Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Times, is blocked."  I shudder to think that in China I won't be able to blog and tweet my ideas!  Who cares if my tweets and posts are profound or inane. Or whether my Facebook posts are a waste of time or political statements.  But, to imagine living in a system where all these are blocked?  

Free expression is increasingly under attack all over the world.  George Packer also has a parenthetical note about China in his essay on free speech; China "became the world’s top jailer of journalists in 2014."   Packer writes:
But, in some ways, an even greater danger than violence or jail is the internal mute button known as self-censorship. Once it’s activated, governments and armed groups don’t have to bother with threats. Here self-censorship is on the rise out of people’s fear of being pilloried on social media. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has been masterful at creating an atmosphere in which there are no clear rules, so that intellectuals and artists stifle themselves in order not to run afoul of vague laws and even vaguer social pressure. A Russian filmmaker, having agreed to remove cursing from her latest movie, assured the Times, “We dubbed it again, and I actually think it became even better.”
In Putin’s Russia, as in Narendra Modi’s India and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, majorities are on the side of silent conformity, and respect for dissent is disappearing under waves of nationalism.
You see why it was so easy for me, a commie-sympathizing teenager, to come to the US decades ago?   

More Packer:
The problem with free speech is that it’s hard, and self-censorship is the path of least resistance. But, once you learn to keep yourself from voicing unwelcome thoughts, you forget how to think them—how to think freely at all—and ideas perish at conception. Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy had more to fear than most of us, but they lived and died as free men.
I will end this with one of my favorite poems (after all, this is poetry month!) on this issue:
Speak, by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Speak, your lips are free.
Speak, it is your own tongue.
Speak, it is your own body.
Speak, your life is still yours.

See how in the blacksmith's shop
The flame burns wild, the iron glows red;
The locks open their jaws,
And every chain begins to break.

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, 'cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

3 comments:

  1. I love Osnos' book on his time in China. Such a great read! It really opened my eyes to the lack of rights many Chinese citizens have, especially for those that live outside of the cities.

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  2. As usual, we will profoundly disagree on this issue. You hold freedom of expression as completely superior to every other right and standing alone. I don't, and hold it in equal regard to other rights. I am highly critical of censorship in Singapore and , worse, in China, but equally in support of, for example, the right to safety which is almost guaranteed in Singapore, but which is not so in most other places.

    You have however articulated one absolute, unarguable, truth. Your Facebook posts are a waste of time :):):):):)

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  3. Hey Zach, didn't you also go to China, though only for a few days? Well, that many more days than the zero from my side. I can imagine you, therefore, getting hooked on to Osnos' book even more than me.
    BTW, good to see you here, after a loooooong time.

    Ramesh, it does not surprise me at all that you disagree with me on the importance of freedom of expression. I wonder how much of that comes from you being an organization (business/corporate) man, versus me who rarely ever toes the line (which is why I piss off the faculty union leaders too, who expect me to shut up.)

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