Thursday, June 4, 2009

Scanning the Great Firewall of China

As the nations of the world prepare to mark the Twentieth Anniversary of the weeks-long student-led pro-democracy demonstrations crushed on June 4th in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, The People’s Republic of China, twelve hours ahead of us, is already suppressing it.

The news is not controlled, it’s stifled. Television crews are banned from the Square. Access to Internet sites is blocked. Popular social networking sites such as Twitter, Flickr and Hotmail are effectively shut down. The Great Firewall of China has wound its way through the inroads of progress, ostensibly rendering modern China impregnable again. But for how long?

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Frost. Will it be Chinese students again? Or the offspring of the workers who supported them so ardently twenty years ago? Whatever it is “That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,” as Frost has it, will invariably have to surface from Chinese soil. What we know, from Jericho to Berlin, is that even in the face of the seemingly impossible, unwelcome, untenable walls come tumbling down.

Two Chinas, the mainland and Taiwan, are slowly, but no one will say surely, becoming one China—aren’t they? Invisible walls prevail. Ten days ago, I was one of six journalists invited to fly from mainland China to Taiwan for the first time in sixty years. More was made of it here than in China. Applying for a visa in New York, I was told that being a “writer” was a problem—“We don’t want you to write anything critical of us.” I was up against a wall—until I asked why they would expect something critical. I got the visa. So nothing I say is critical.

BUT. Here’s where the information factor becomes critical. I have seen first hand what a communist-controlled education can do to people, in the Former Soviet Union, in Mongolia, and in [censored]. It deprives them of the ability to think for themselves, to make decisions and to take responsibility for them. It primes them for taking orders and strips them of any notion under the sun of not following them.

Still, contradictions abound. The educated are super-educated. Three consecutive guides learned English in Chinese schools and spoke it better than many an American I’ve heard. When someone used any English word they didn’t know, they took a small electronic gizmo out of a pocket or pocketbook, entered the word, read the definition provided on the screen and “saved” it. The management and staffs of the hotels we stayed in, the grandest of Grand Hyatts in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei, were fluent, fast on the uptake (and we gave them plenty to take up, and in) and charmingly, often wittily, responsive.

All things computed, the “new” China is better served without firewalls.


  1. The news is not controlled, it’s stifled. —“We don’t want you to write anything critical of us.” Sounds a lot like the current White House Press Office doen't it. Of course the Chinese never giggle the way Gates does. They just cold stare you into intimidation. The parallels between their news and ours is becoming frightening. Journalism has died in America, replaced by "news" organizations with such bias that the fourth estate has ceased to exist as a source reliable, truthful, insightful news. Instead they have become viscious demogogues like Dan Rather, Olberman, Maddow, Limbaugh and Hannity. I get my news from the BBC now, thank you very much. Thanks Ray for another stimulating story.

  2. Wow. I had no idea that you would be abroad in time for the Tienanmen Square anniversary. Stay safe, Ray, but keep writing. This is most captivating.

  3. The American news media may have it faults, but how anyone can compare Dan Rather to morons like Limbaugh and Hannity, is beyond comprehension. No wonder we are in trouble.

  4. ANON: My spologies if lumping Dan Rather into the same category as the lunatic fringe (interesting you didn't mention Maddow or Olberman with Hannity and Limbaugh) offended. Rather was a good newsman in the beginning, a student of the Fred Friendly school no doubt. I think, he above all others, in his false report about the Bush National Guard Service, did a great disservice to American broadcast journalism. At one time the broadcast media gave us a story with as little bias as possible. Rather is not the culprit but instead the focus of how that same media learned to "wag the dog". On the print media side there is Judith Miller. She single handedly got the NY times inaccurately in front of the WMD stories that led up to the war in Iraq. Poor Miss Miller in her attempt to editorialize what Americans needed to be doing forgot the rule of two sourcing a story of such importance. The reporting of news in America has gone the way of the rest of America life, we are the micro-wave culture. Give us two minutes of anything, but make sure we get two minutes of everything at the same time. No one takes the time to get it right. It's the "throw all the crap up against the wall and let's see what sticks" mentality. This has then made it possible for people like Hannity, Limbaugh, Maddow, Olberman, Chris Matthews, et alia to view themselves as journalists rather than the shills for their sides point of view they are. They are hucksters for the left or the right, but Huckster nonetheless. A lunatic fringe that serve no better purpose than to have people sniping at each other over the most extreme views rather than helping to bring them together over common ground. We are in trouble sir, (or madam) NOT because I lumped Rather in with the lunatic fringe, but because by his own action he helped to make them stronger. "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing" (Sir Edmund Burke). I fear for our freedom to continue to be able to have conversations like this my friend. Hence the long winded connection from Tiannment to Rather to the finge folk. God (or your personal chice of deity) Bless

  5. Steve,

    I'm pleased to see your "apology" for mentioning Dan Rather in the same context as what you correctly call the lunatic fringe. That's genuinely "big" of you. But I think your interpretation of his report of George W. Bush's National Guard Service is mistaken. I believe Dan was the fall guy in this affair, not the transgressor, and that he was bamboozled. Even further, he may have been outwitted, i.e., set up. By whom? By right wing conspirers whose history is testimony they will go to the most unbelieveable lengths with infantile tricks and their "God's Will" fantasies to have the world their way.

    We know Bush cowardly shunned his National Guard duties at every opportunity. How much of a stretch was it for anyone to give credence, complete at that, to those documents? You make a valid point about the overhastiness of going with a story. But my guess is you probably have no idea of the pressure a major network like CBS can put on you. In short, the executives play tough. When a situation requires it, they're callously indifferent to anyone deemed on any side other than theirs and disposed to be unconscionably brutal.

    By virtue of knowing Dan Rather, I know he's one of the good guys. At his worst, he's overzealous. (Should I cite here that to make an omelette you have to break a few eggs?) But if you compare him to the roll-over journalists and "good men" you, according to your Burke quote, would decry, you will have to admit that the more virtuous person does SOMETHING, does what he or she can, does his or her best without toddying to power or trembling in consideration of the possible consequences. Dan Rather was, and, I dearly hope, still is, a brave journalist--sometimes abrasive, sometimes inordinately aggressive, but always conscientious and, in the name of getting the story, intrepid. The absence or woeful lack of those qualities and standards is the change in journalism as practiced today I believe you miss and mourn.

    A final word: Dan came to my assistance once, contributing his time and considerable talent unstintingly to a documentary I was making, "Freedom to Hate," intended to save lives by exposing a neo-Nazi hate movement threatening to take them, solely because he believed in what I was doing. Perhaps I should write a more detailed blog entry about it. He deserves it.



  6. Steve;
    Thank you for your apology. I think Ray's response covered much of what I would have replied. Dan Rather garnered great respect in his long career, and if you can find fault with only one issue, he has done well. No one can say that about the numerous other names you listed. The lunatic fringe goes after people as if they have a vendetta to score. The "whole" truth is not important to them. Only the pieces that support their personal points of view are considered. The Rathers and Cronkites and men and women of that ilk could never be accused of such irresponsible behavior. But even the best of them, are still human, and at some point in their careers, were bound to do something that displeased their readers and viewers. That's a given when you deal daily with issues that have more than one perspective. Someone is bound to be unhappy. You can't always walk the middle of the road. I know firsthand the pressures networks put on their reporters and just how much latitude newscasters are given - and not given. There is always an element of "control" from the top.
    Much can be said for the benefits of the electronic media, but one of its serious downsides is it not only reaches those who take the time to consider intelligently what they read and hear, it also reaches the masses who have neither the desire nor the intellect to decipher truth from fiction, opinion from fact. These are the people who swallow whole all the garbage the lunatic fringe spews forth, and since there are many more of them than there are those who care enough to be discerning about what is placed before them, we end up where we are today. In the past, before TV was a mainstay in every home, before the computer became an outlet for every nut to spread his or her wild ideas to thousands, maybe millions, with just a click, in the days when you had to make an effort to be informed, the followers of today's lunatic fringe were less of a threat. They didn't read articles in the paper.....if they read a paper at all. Times have changed. Aside from the major concerns we live with these days, we have many other lesser ones - important, but not terrifying -: is our food safe, are our cars safe, are our homes safe from chemicals and outsiders, are our children really learning in school, if we go out to pull weeds will we get Lyme Disease, can we stem the flow of drugs, can we afford to go to the doctor, just some of the serious questions we ask ourselves every day, scary questions. But among the scariest of all, are the members of the lunatic fringe who fill the minds of naive citizens who don't know they are being manipulated, duped by broadcasters whose only aim is to scare them into believing false accusations, misleading so-called truths, and inflammatory gossip about people they thought they could trust. We can only hope that one day, they will see the light, before it is too late.
    Just one last thing. It's not the "see what sticks mentality" that gives this fringe group the capacity to call themselves journalists, it's the industries that sponsor their programs because conflict sells. It's the sought-after almighty buck that gives them a platform. Without a stage they have no audience. Without a platform they are nobody. The fault lies with those who make it possible for them to inflict their views on a public that doesn't know any better, especially at times when people are struggling and looking for someone to blame.
    Ms. Anonymous

  7. Frankly, I'm shocked at the vast right wing conspiracy theory being raised as defense of anything anymore. Infantile tricks and God's Will fantasies"? I have heard of these things from paranoids on the left but have never seen evidence to prove it. To be "big" I will also say that the right has their own paranoia about socialist agendas and the like. Ridiculous assertions with absolutely no support and unworthy of addtional discussion. Except that I am dying to be told in detail how we "know" that Bush shunned his National Guard duties at EVERY opportunity. I don't know of a single instance of this being true.

    Both of you make the assumption that "you probably have no idea of the pressure a major network like CBS can put on you." Au contraire mes amis. Allow me a brief history of my ken.

    Dennis Eskow, my brother and hero, began writing for a local newspaper at 12. Upon his return from the Army he took a job as a copy boy at the Daily News. Shortly thereafter he became the Brooklyn Crime reporter, and then an editor on the city desk. He then went to the AP where he spent a number of years editing on their International Desk. He did on air reports for a number of the networks and then went to Hearst where he became the Science editor at Popular Mechanics. Although not the writer he was, I accompanied him on many stories as his photographer. He did interviews with Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Ford; astronomer Isaac Asimov, and many other notables of our times. We spoke at length weekly about the difficulties of the story, but when he wanted a story he always did get it.

    So there you have it. I know and understand all too well what journalists have to go through. I admire your loyalty, Ray, but am not convinced that even though he was kind and helpful to you, that Mr. Rather still was not the journalist he might have been as a younger man. As Editor of the nightly news he had the authority to kill that story before it was ever told. He had the responsibility to second source it and didn't. He was told that the source was not reliable and still relied on it. He could have checked the validity of the National Guard records with the Pentagon and didn't. HE wasn't foiled by a right wing conspiracy but by plain old malfeasance.

    Like Judith Miller Mr. Rather is not the cause of the death of journalism in America. They are merely carriers of the symptoms that killed it: laziness, vindictivness, and irresponsibilty.

  8. Steve;
    I take it back. You know what print journalists go through. Before you criticize Rather, perhaps you should hear what really happened. We are such a judgemental society and so unforgiving of any deviation from what we consider the norm. This mentality of "I don't agree with you therefore you are wrong," is what gets us in trouble all the time. Journalism is not dead; not nearly. It has changed. Maybe it needs some reform; mabe it could be revamped here or there; but it is not dead. There are still many conscientious, honorable journalists all over the world. They are not lazy, vindictive or irresponsible. Some have sacrificed their lives trying to be what you want them to be. Stop condeming the many for the real or alleged transgressions of the few.
    And by the way, Ray's friend and mine, Isaac Asimov was not an astronomer he was a PhD. in chemistry.
    Ms. Anonymous

  9. Ms Anon, As I age I learn to judge less and to listen more. There was a time when rather was a decent journalist. I don't know when he sold his soul but I believe he did. I do know that by his own admission he thought that the evidence in the National Guard story was credible and reportable without second sourcing. By that admission he basically said he had lost his edge as a journalist and it was time for him to go. Journalism died in the last election and is nothing more than a shill for a one party demagoguery. TV news is impossible to watch as it is nothing more than the vidoe version of the National Enquirer. I would love to be a fly on the wall for a tv news budget meeting when they are deciding what stories to run. Brittany Spears plowing into a crowd of people at a disco is more important than a medal of honor winner from Long Island? Every time a "newperson" gushing with giddyness reports on the presidents bare chest in a beach photo, the news dies a little more. What is referred to as journalism today has no meat; there is nothing to bite into. I would be happy to sit with you and watch an evening newscast by Katie, or whoever does it at channel 4 and 7 these days and point out the numerous errors in grammar and substance in each story. Then we can look at a cable news show and see the obvious bias in reporting that Shep Smith, Wolf Blitzer, and Oberman have. The fact that any of these shows allow a Janeane Garafolo to come on and rail at Americans exercising their 1st Amendment rights (the Teabag interview) on the basis of her intellectualism makes frighteningly clear the death of American journalism. The NYT failure to publish an Op-Ed by a Presidential candidate when they did so for his opponenet is insulting. These things alone are just symptoms. The real disease is that newspapers across our country are dying because people don't read anymore because what is written isn't worth the time. TV news is dying because the "journalists" may have good educational credentials but are nothing more than vacuous readers of teleprompters. I am not condemning the many for the transgressions of the few at all. I am instead in mourning that two few journalists are being overwhelmed by too many who have killed their once noble fourth estate.
    My apologies about Dr. Asimov. He taught at my son's alma mater , Boston University, I should have known better. By the way, he was a bio-chemist just to clarify. You and ray are very lucky to be able to have called him friend.

  10. Steve,
    Enough has been said about the rise and fall of journalism.
    As to Isaac, any publication that tags him as a bio-chemist is wrong. He was not. He was a Doctor of Chemistry only. It is reported incorrectly many times in many places, but in truth, he was a chemist, not a bio-chemist. He just couldn't be bothered correcting it all the time. And coincidentally, BU is my youngest daughter's alma mater as well. I'd like to think she got in comletely on her own merits, but I'm sure the letter of recommendation from Isaac didn't hurt.
    Ms Anonymous

  11. Anon,
    Ignore the realities of the death of journalism if you will. It saddens me greatly because I believe that as witnesses to the death of journalism we will see slow, steady, unprecedented erosion of our freedoms. "The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them, inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false." --Thomas Jefferson

    He taught at the med school as I would think the reports of his bio-chem background were valid, but yield to whatever personal knowledge you have of Dr. Asimov. He was one of the most remarkable thinkers of this age, or any age, and that is all that truly matters.

    Mr. Right out here in the open. :)

  12. Excellent, Ray! God, how I wish that (Censored) might become a country even a tad more democratic. Eventually, perhaps. If the world lasts that long.

  13. Ray as always you are on point. I too felt horrible at the end of the press conference. Lynn Sweet is an old friend and a fine journalist--Our Prez goofed. It happens.

    Although he screwed up his news conference the pandora's box he seemingly opened remains one of our nation's most tender spots. Electing a black man as President is certainly a little balm for the wound but we are still a racially divided nation. Had Professor Gates been the late and often angry Professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan it never would've ended in cuffs. Gates is an iconic figure--everyone at Harvard knows what he looks like but for a moment he was just another black man. The Prez awkwardly raised the issue but I expect every police department in this nation talked about this in the squadroom and perhaps it did some good.

    As for Heath Care reform--it will happen in 09. But the Prez added a month or so to the debate---maybe it was worth it.