Over the past several months I have been discussing this topic with several civil libertarian writers. A number of different organizations such as Freedom House (which publishes an annual report “Freedom in the World“) have tried to quantify – via a number of metrics – the various levels of police statism.
While hardly scientific, I have created a simple litmus test to be used here in China:
Can you publish “We live in a police state” in public and not have it removed/censored and not end up in jail?
For example, there are a near infinite amount of anti-Bush, anti-Obama, anti-Schwarzenegger, anti-Rick Astley, anti-ALF sites throughout the series of tubes. Yet many of these politically-tuned sites are made and hosted in the US, yet are not (currently) blocked nor are the authors thrown into US jails. (Though that could change if the extraditions stemming from IP and whistle-blowing cases of Kim Dotcom and Julian Assange are any indication).
The same cannot be said here in China, where the mere mentioning of civil mass unrest or political results in you being disappeared, your accounts being deleted and your own name being thrown down the memory hole (Liu Xiaobo anyone?).
For example, a few days ago Bloomberg published a detailed critical report regarding the financial ties of the family of the new, upcoming Chinese president Xi Jinping. As a result, the entire Bloomberg portal has been inaccessible here on the mainland and still is inaccessible as of this writing.
Yet according to some US pundits, seditious comments (or at least, how they define seditious) against the US state should warrant a clamp down on civil liberties.
For example back in 2005, Charles Krauthammer tried to justify limits to civil libertarian tolerance, stating that:
Call it situational libertarianism: Liberties should be as unlimited as possible — unless and until there arises a real threat to the open society. Neo-Nazis are pathetic losers. Why curtail civil liberties to stop them? But when a real threat — such as jihadism — arises, a liberal democratic society must deploy every resource, including the repressive powers of the state, to deter and defeat those who would abolish liberal democracy.
Several months later, similar sentiments were echoed by Ben Shapiro who proposed:
At some point, opposition must be considered disloyal. At some point, the American people must say “enough.” At some point, Republicans in Congress must stop delicately tiptoeing with regard to sedition and must pass legislation to prosecute such sedition.
Unintentionally, this is an endorsement of the current China censorship model. And worse, such sentiments by both US pundits and members of the political class today are problematic for Western human rights organizations. After all, if the land of the free keeps Guantanamo open and unleashes ICE agents upon the net, why should China listen to Hillary Clinton lecture the PRC about human rights and censorship abuse?
Perhaps the EFF or ACLU or some other civil libertarian organization could make an infographic illustrating what restrictions on our civil liberties have taken place during 4 or 5 frenetic periods. They could even use the ones Shapiro cited in the aforementioned article (Civil War, WW I, WW II, Vietnam).
I would wager that civil liberties as a whole have probably been measurably squashed upon over the past century and a half (especially due to the disastrous War on Drugs), but because of smarthpones, Youtube and cheap net access, we are now able to show more liberties being violated and abuses taking place.
Or in other words, yes there has probably been on the aggregate more violations, but our knowledge of past abuses is severely limited to the low-tech era of that time.
For example: the Japanese internment camps are a bit of a head scratcher. I remember the first time I read about them and was like, how was this tolerated? Demonization, fear, hysteria. Would this have been able to take place today with smartphone vigilantism? Hard to say, though the propaganda by some pundits and educators towards Muslims in the US has included a push to place this demographic group in similar camps en masse (just for the record, Islamic practitioners in the US comprise less than 1% of the population).
So back to technological tools: it is kind of like earthquakes and seismic detectors. Yes our ancestors knew earthquakes were taking place in the pre-Industrial past, but they had no idea just how many. Yet various religious sects point to the “huge amount of earthquakes” that take place each year as some kind of proof of an impending apocalypse. But the truth of the matter is, we now only just started being able to use machines to reliably analyze and store such vibrations and movements. Ceteris paribus, there were probably just as many quakes in the past as there are now.
Notes in the margin
I think we as libertarians certainly agree that Lew Rockwell is by every measure, a libertarian. Unfortunately some people that email him are incorrect at times. For example, this past spring a reader said that:
China is trending towards more freedom and the US is trending towards authoritarianism, so any comparison just chronicles where we are at the moment, and not where we’re obviously going to be ten years from now.
I can say this based on my conversations with my son: for most people that would fall into a comparable social class, China is no where near as authoritarian as the US, and where authority is exercised it appears to be with more restraint. There is no TSA at Chinese airports. My son has entered the country when the customs and immigration checks were simply closed (because it was outside normal working hours) and walked off the plane and into Beijing.
On the surface, there are a lot of “rules” in China, but no one pays any attention and the authorities don’t enforce them. My son never had any problems finding what he wanted on the internet, was never stopped or hassled by the authorities, and never had any official interference in anything he did there. Their legal system is not as harsh and punitive as ours is…..at least judging by the anecdotes I’ve heard from my son.
Yes, there are lots of problems there…especially among the lower socio-economic class, and things are very different than in the US, but he loves it there.
This is simply not true.
Two days after posting that, on April 27th, Beijing began a crackdown on visa violations, deporting foreigners across the northern metropolis. A month later, this crackdown became part of a 100-day nationwide crackdown on illegal/overstaying foreigners.
And a new law was just passed here last week in which employers will be fined 10,000 RMB ($1,580) for every illegal foreigner hired (it takes effect a year from now).
Thus to counter the comment at the LRC post above, China is probably not trending toward freedom. At least vis-a-vis overt public policies. And as Bill Bishop recently noted, it remains to be seen how the Chinese political class will be able to manage a censorship regime with a plethora of cheap smartphones and microblogging sites — though a panopticon is also a distinct, increasingly real, possibility.