Nikkei Asian Review (January 19-25, 2015)

Beijing is at pains to justify its Uighur policies and muzzling of the press.
Xinhua published a commentary on the attack in Paris arguing that “there should be limits on freedom of press.” While denouncing terrorism, the article also criticized French weekly Charlie Hebdo’s satirical take on Islam.
Humor should be based on the principle of not hurting others”, the article said. “Unfettered and unprincipled satire, humiliation and free speech are not acceptable.”
This commentary highlights a key difference over the idea of freedom of expression between China’s government and Western democracies. Chinese netizens overwhelmingly supported the Xinhua stance.
China imposes tight controls, including social network surveillance, on speech in Xinjiang. Xinhua’s article reflects Beijing’s desire to use the terrorist attacks in Paris to justify suppression of information at home.

Sometimes, I can’t help feeling uneasy when Chinese newspapers talk about freedom of speech. I know that society as a whole has different rules when it comes to what can and what cannot be said, but a newspaper saying that it should be (auto) censored? This sounds awfully wrong to me.

The other day, a Singaporean friend told me that there is a saying in Singapore. I do not remember it properly, but it sounded like “Whatever you say, you cannot escape from the responsibility embedded in your words.” It was a strange moment, when I knew that she did not understand the same thing as me. She understood “you can talk shit in Singapore, but you’ll have to assume it later” (meaning punishment, since freedom of speech is restricted) while I simply agreed to the logic of the phrase.

If you are a journalist, you have to take responsibility for the words you pronounce or write. If you are not a journalist, it is the same. But that does not mean that you should muzzle people; just that they should be responsible and assume their opinion.

I really have trouble understanding how a girl like her, who is extremely international, does not care about the political state of her country. She goes abroad, sees multiparty political systems but does not doubt one second that the Singaporean government is the best Singapore can expect. “Opposition? They would never be able to govern.” “Isn’t it because you can’t picture it, since they can’t really exist as a strong alternative?” “No, they wouldn’t be efficient.” And when she tells me that opposition exists in Singapore, I want to laugh. What opposition? Even newspapers are under close surveillance!

And then I think about a really interesting book I read a few years ago: Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money And Lost Our Liberty. I remember a Singaporean friend reading it and giving it back to me, grinning: “Yeah, that’s exactly Singapore. No freedom but money, so people are happy.” There was a chapter that incorporated an analysis of France under Sarkozy and it was also sadly accurate.

I do not believe in absolute freedom. I do not believe in a paternalist state either. I simply believe that people have rights, but also duties, and that the balance between those two components is extremely important.


Listening to: JONGHYUN – 할렐루야 (Hallelujah)


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