The Chinese are here again (2)

As I explained in an earlier posting, this week I was in Oxford to lecture to a group of 18 officials from the Chinese municipality of Tianjin. I wanted to stimulate them to ask questions rather than simply listen to a prepared text and they were certainly willing to engage with me. It is always difficult to be sure with such a group whether they are receptive to the messages you are putting over: partly because there is the problem of language and partly because inevitably some participants speak a lot and many not at all.

I was gently and politely challenging of features of the Chinese political system, suggesting that Government should be more open with the media and citizens and less defensive in the face of criticism. But some of the officials felt that the West does not understand China and is unfair in its criticisms of the country over issues like control of the media and human rights.

Some were equally critical of their own media, accusing it of telling lies and sowing dissent. I attempted to point out that, while the Chinese Government does not trust the Chinese media, many Chinese people do not trust their own Government to tell the truth. I felt it wise to choose an illustration that was not too topical, so I mentioned the SARS crisis of 2003 rather than for instance the self-immolation of Tibetan monks at the present time.

A lot of discussion was about the Internet – which is, of course, a great interest of mine. I mentioned my own web site and some of the officials accessed that on their laptops and iPads – lots of new technology here – while I was speaking. They were happily using Google which they cannot do at home. Nobody referred to the ‘Great Firewall of China’ but they reflected the widespread concern among the Chinese political establishment that the Internet has to be controlled so that ‘false messages’ are not promulgated.

While my lecture was about the way Government in Britain communicates with its citizens and how citizens here have access to public information, I emphasised that Britain and China have vastly different histories and cultures and I recognise that China cannot simply adopt British processes and methods, even if it wished to do so. It took us centuries of slow and usually fiercely contested progress to evolve our democratic values and institutions. We cannot expect China to become a democratic state rapidly or easily.

However, the dramatic economic liberalisation that we have seen in China since the mid 1970s and the growing number of Chinese students who are studying abroad – plus the large number of Chinese delegations visiting the West – will have an impact on the political structures and practices in China and the process may well not be under the full control of the Chinese Communist Party.


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