A Self-Censoring Storm Cloud

When I lived in Wuhan, a friend once told me I bounced around like a happy little bunny rabbit, that she’d had enough of my effervescence and that my exuberance was annoying. She was fond of me, really, I think… but Wuhan can be a tough place to get used to and I suspect having somebody catapulting about the place like an enthusiastic fluffy animal would be trying on one’s nerves. She likened me to a little ray of sunshine and herself to a storm cloud, but to be honest, I think after she left China her storm left her. Whereas, upon occasion, this little ray of sunshine has clouds appear on her horizon.
Today I would describe my mood as (at best) complicated or (at worst) very dark. Although writing about little fluffy bunnies and rays of sunshine did cheer me up somewhat, I feel decidedly crappy and have a slight urge to listen to heavy metal while scrubbing the bathroom (never a good sign), which probably means I have some pent up rage that needs releasing and some mental housework to do. I am extremely thankful this is a rare state for me to be in and that I don’t seem to be capable of sustaining this level of negativity for long periods of time. Apart from anything else, mental housework is a lot easier to do if you don’t feel like crap.
Last week, after my rant about population trends and the plight of women, I was completely out of oompf and unable to continue on with the other topic that I had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about. I’m not feeling particularly impassioned about it at the moment and fear not doing it justice, but it is important. And with a particular anniversary looming yet again, I really think it is the right time to put something in words here. The topic is self-censorship.
As a foreigner living in China and, in particular, being one who likes to write, it is not like I can ever forget the topic of self-censorship. I teach. In the classroom I am always painfully aware of when we are approaching sensitive subject matter. I feel myself start to bite my own tongue, to stop the thoughts that are hammering against the inside of my skull from flinging themselves straight out of my mouth. I came here in part to learn. And not to tell people what to think. I have signed contracts to keep my mouth shut and not to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, or whatever the clause was. But… when I read things like Hanhan’s call to teachers, I have to hang my head in shame. 
There have been times where I have written things and I knew I was reining myself in too. Especially when I wrote about my trip to Xinjiang last summer on my travelpod. I felt like I was weighing my words carefully before self-consciously laying them down, hoping to… do what? Convey meaning without causing offence? I think there are some things that probably can’t actually be discussed without causing offence to somebody. To express what I could of my thoughts without being ‘harmonised’ away? I write in English, so I am not actually that concerned about the possibility of being cyber-disappeared. And nothing I have written has been hardcore enough to warrant it. But I do it and I hate it and I don’t think well of myself for doing it. Keeping my mouth shut out of respect for somebody’s feelings, I can accept. Keeping my mouth shut because a bunch of people in priveleged positions said so, because it makes their lives easier, because they are afraid of their own people… I don’t feel comfortable about that at all.
The stupid thing is that there are so many things that are actually open secrets. Everybody knows what is going on (well, a lot of people?), but nobody is allowed to print it. My epistemology professor at uni used to talk about little pink elephants climbing walls and leprechauns in the garden. I can’t remember how I thought that was related… Oh right, the elephant in the room. Every now and then somebody pipes up and tries to point it out but they get hushed by other people, afraid that nutty old pops in the corner will lose it if he hears. So the kids start getting more creative and call it an L-E-fant or a big thing with a long nose. It’s absurd. I think it is counterproductive becuase it makes the whole venture, of speaking one’s mind, a challenge. And a trendy one at that.
Anyway, I am feeling decidedly more mellow now (which makes for lousy writing because I think I am much funnier when I am in a bitchy mood). The point is, I got my knickers in a knot about self-censorship again after listening to another Sinica podcast. I had no idea there were so many Western academics who did this. I wish they’d grow some balls. There was also some more about censorship on Chinageeks this week, which kind of kept the issue alive in the back of my mind even more than usual.
And finally, this is something I wrote very close to a year ago when I was seriously ticked off. I couldn’t get onto Facebook for about 2 weeks after I made some rather choice comments about ZZY and Tiananmen Papers in my status. Note: this was when it wasn’t actually blocked (that happened in July) and nobody else in my building was having any problems. It could have been a coincidence, but it didn’t feel like it. And that made me ballistic. While I think I have come to understand some things about the government’s situation in the past year that make me understand why there is as yet no change official-position-wise and is unlikely to be one for a while, my gut feeling is the same. My annoyance at myself certainly has not altered either. So. Here it is again.
I guess this is a letter to my invisible buddies out there who intermittently block my access to certain sites, this one included, and cut off the odd phone call to my mother.


You know what? I usually do a lot of your work for you by biting my own tongue and staying my overly impetuous fingers when they itch to flutter across the keyboard. I am ashamed to admit it, but I self-censor. I don’t like it, but I came here, eyes wide open, to learn. Not to preach and certainly not to rock the boat. Indeed, I signed documents saying I would not be a pain in the butt. I’m not pig-headed enough to think I can change this country. Nor do I believe I have any right to do so.


To tell the truth, I feel your presence much less than I would ever have thought possible. I have shied away from the unexpected frankness of conversations around me. From openness when I had not expected it. I had foolishly lulled myself into a false sense of security, assuming freedom existed where, at least sometimes (as your have recently reminded me), it certainly does not. And so, when I feel your presence, I tend to resent it all the more. You know what? I have to hand it to you… this time you’ve managed to piss me off.


I would have stayed silent of my own accord, but you attempted to gag me anyway. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my imagination. Maybe you understand me better than I do myself. But I think you made a mistake. You can stop me from speaking but you cannot stop me from thinking. And when you force my mouth shut, I think a lot. Maybe too much. I feel angry at you and at myself because I probably would have done this job for you. Willingly even. And because you’ve made me mad I want to give you a piece of my mind. As someone who also cares about this land and its people, people I know you think you are trying to protect, I feel obliged to tell you a couple of things.


You can rename it. You can stop people from talking about it. You can block their ears and cover their eyes. Maybe you can even bluff a whole generation. But it is still there, like a wound that does not heal. Avoidance will not make it go away because you cannot erase it. Nor can you erase people’s memories of it, or their pain.  While that hurt exists, there will always be a chance that it will break through the barriers you build with avoidance and denial.


To be blunt, your actions speak fear. And perhaps with good reason. But believe me when I tell you that fear is what caused this mess in the first place. Tell whoever it is you answer to that there is a way out of this mess but that a large dose of courage is needed. Please. Be brave where you were fearful. Trust that the people you are ‘protecting’ love this country just as much as you do and have little interest in seeing it fall to pieces. They can handle discussion.


And there it is, my invisible friend, my partner in the crime of keeping my mouth shut, I have spoken my mind, albeit in a somewhat cryptic fashion. What can I say except that old habits die hard? I’m used to doing your job for you… even now when my heart rebels on this of all days. I’m fed-up with your meddling and my own implied consent. But I am also, I feel, well-intentioned and sincere. I wonder how you will choose to view me and my thoughts.


Finished June 4, 2009, ironically enough while listening to Depeche Mode’s "Enjoy the Silence"…


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