Right in the middle of my visit last summer, Facebook disappeared. It was added to the list of sites blocked by the Chinese firewall. At the time I was in China, hanging out with my friends, so we really didn’t miss not seeing each other on Facebook. When I mentioned it at a dinner, the feeling was that it was only temporary blockage that would surely pass. Someone at the table even thought it might have just been a glitch in the city network.
A year has passed, and I am surprised how dramatically it has affected how much we know about one another. Sure, it made “catching up” this year a good topic of conversation for the first hour or so, but we missed out on the little details that social networking is so efficient at delivering. At dinner this year, we were all aware of the absence.
As tonight’s conversation moved on to a nearby bar, I asked about what everyone thought about Google’s sudden departure from China. Positions were mixed. A few thought that it was a bad thing, because Google is ignoring its responsibility to bring information into China. Everyone agreed that for most Chinese it really didn’t make a difference, China’s homegrown sites Baidu and Sohu will take up the slack. I argued that it seemed Google’s departure brought into stark relief the way that things disappear from the Chinese Web–like Facebook, for example.
They dismissed my argument as simply that of an academic. What would the value be in an increased awareness of the absence of information? It’s gone, so why would is disappearance be useful? I don’t have an answer yet, but one thing is clear to me this absence is felt by the younger generation, a much larger percentage of whom are net users. Just when I was beginning to think that everyone over 35 was different because we have a much deeper context for understanding China’s reform–we share some memories of 1989, for example–along comes a reminder for the younger generations of heavy-handed government censorship.The hot word tonight was, minganci, sensitive words. It is a word that I have never heard so much as I have on this trip. A word like this that gains prominence suggests a strong awareness.
A bit later I moved the conversation in what I thought was a different direction by sharing the news of the upcoming remake of Red Dawn, and my concern that it would really be misunderstood by Chinese when copies become available after its release. They were curious about the film, so I tried to look up the link. It was, of course, blocked–leading back to the topic of minganci.
At that moment one two of the folks at the table broke into song, then another one joined them. The tune was a familiar one, I Love Beijing Tiananmen, a classic Mao-era children’s song.
I love Beijing Tiananmen,
Tiananmen where sun’s risen.
Mighty Leader Chairman Mao,
Leading all of us forward.
I was surprised, however, to hear that the words had been slightly altered. Instead of the original, they replaced “Tiananmen” and “leader” with “sensitive words”.
I love Beijing’s Sensitive Words!
Sensitive Words are where the sun rises!
Our mighty leader Sensitive Words!
Leading all of us forward!
We had a good laugh. Score one for the people!