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Monday, Oct. 27, 2003

Ignorance is no longer bliss for China

HONG KONG -- U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was understandably angry that her memoir, "Living History," was censored by the Beijing publisher who put out the Chinese edition. Her comments on the military crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, on her experience at the 1995 United Nations conference on women in Beijing and her account of the arrest of Chinese-American human rights activist Harry Wu were all excised or changed.

No doubt, the Chinese publisher, Yilin Publishing House, was right in saying that 99.9 percent of the book was not altered. After all, China accounts for a minuscule portion of the book's contents. But Chinese readers are likely to be especially interested in what Clinton had to say about their country.

Liu Feng, the deputy editor in chief of Yilin, said they had only made "technical changes to the content in some parts of the book in order to win more Chinese readers. The changes do not hurt the integrity of the book."

The real reason for the excisions, of course, was to sanitize the book for Chinese readers so that they won't have to read anything derogatory about their government. The Chinese publisher did not have to be told what to take out. All editors in China understand what must be taken out and what can be left in: Anything critical of the Chinese government must go; the rest can stay.

This is summed up in the Chinese expression bao xi bu bao you, or "only report good news, not bad news."

While readers in the United States zeroed in on the sections that had to do with Monica Lewinsky, Chinese readers would in all probability have been just as interested in Clinton's thoughts about China. And this is the information that the state's censorship and propaganda apparatus denied them.

Clinton was spot on when she said, "They want to control the opinions and minds of their citizens," an effort that, she said, would become "increasingly futile" in the Internet era.

In fact, the Chinese security authorities are using modern technology to even censor the Internet, but this is simply a rear-guard action. The flow of information is so massive these days that it is self-defeating to seek to deny Chinese citizens access to information that everyone else in the world is privy to. This merely creates an ignorant citizenry, which is the opposite of what the Chinese government says it is trying to do.

True, for many years, China adopted a policy of keeping its people in ignorance of the rest of the world so that they would not be aware of their own country's backwardness. But this was counterproductive, because Chinese people created in their imagination an external world that was so superior to China as to be unreal. One play that was shown in the early 1980s, when China was just beginning to open up to the outside world, had people in the U.S. using picture phones when ordinary telephones were still not that common.

The new leadership of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have given indications that they want to initiate political reforms. Hu has called for efforts to expand citizens' orderly participation in political affairs and guarantee the people's rights to carry out democratic election, decision making, management and supervision. To do these things, the people will need information, reliable, uncensored information on which to make judgments.

It stands to reason that if an enlightened new leadership in China wants the Chinese people to be citizens rather than subjects, the yumin zhengce, China's traditional policy of keeping the people in ignorance must be discarded.

The Chinese leaders have been emphasizing the importance of improving the quality of the population in order to keep pace with a developing economy. Already, China's people are much better educated than before. The party needs to adopt more sophisticated ways of dealing with the people than simply keeping them in ignorance.

Hopefully, the recently concluded third plenary session of the 16th Party Congress will see the party move in that direction.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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