Teaching “Under The Dome”

This was a bad week for people in China who like journalism.

This was the week a cruise ship sank on the Yangtze River and killed 440 people with no explanation, but Chinese media were forced to change the headlines to “18 People Rescued From Cruise Ship.”

Of course, this week was also the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, or, as I’ve been thinking of it as I read over lists of hundreds of vaguely related words that will get a social media post taken offline, Censorship Awareness Day.

Last year, two days before the 25th anniversary of the massacre, China commemorated the event by blocking Google. This year it didn’t have to, because all Google services are still blocked here in mainland China. So are YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, this blog, and a good deal of the outside world’s respectable journalism. (The New York Times and BBC are blocked, but a lot of sites featuring snippets of their content, such as The Daily Beast and The Week, are still accessible.)

This week in class, I gave a lecture about Western taboos. In my most open-minded class, I segued from offending a conversation partner to offending the government. On Thursday, June 4, I asked my students what had happened on that date in China in 1989. At first none of them seemed to have any idea. Then one student said he knew. His father had been on his way to the protests in Beijing, but had been called back to work – a call that, as he told the class, maybe saved his father’s life.

Tiananmen Square Duck Man
The famous Tiananmen Square Tank Man photo, disguised in an attempt to sneak the image past censors on Chinese social media. Not to be outdone, the government added “big yellow duck” to the list of banned search terms.

The students were still confused and one asked me outright if I knew the story of the massacre. I said I did and, to my surprise, they wanted me to tell them. I gently outlined the events: Students demanding democratic reforms and an end to corruption. Tank Man. A death toll estimated in the thousands. They asked if all foreigners know about this. Yes, I told them, and it’s in school textbooks in the U.S. – a detail that shocked them more than any other. The hardest part was seeing them look defeated and, most strikingly, embarrassed by not knowing their own country’s history.

That was one of the days when I felt like my job was actually important, like I was doing something for these students that no one had, instead of just correcting the same grammar mistakes, week after week.

Another time like that, and one of my favorite weeks teaching here, was when I showed a clip from a documentary called Under The Dome and let students discuss – with the classroom doors closed – pollution, corruption, and censorship.

Under the Dome is a film by an independent Chinese journalist that was, back when people were talking about it, likened to China’s coming of An Inconvenient Truth – unprecedented, controversial, and game-changing. The film was released for free online on February 28, including on the website of the communist party’s newspaper. It was praised by China’s environmental minister, and banned by the party one week later, after about 200 million views in China.

Very few of those viewers were my students in the huge but rather provincial city of Jinan. In most of my classes, two or three students had heard of the film; maybe one had watched a portion of it. I showed the first few minutes, and when I turned the lights back on, half of my students had tears in their eyes in each of my six classes. Here’s what they saw:

Their reactions surprised me, but they made sense. We live in the seventh smoggiest city in all of China. And a lot of students, at least here in the relative sticks, aren’t entirely aware that their government censors the Internet.

But some of their comments in our discussions floored me, beginning with the student who reminded me why I had chosen to show the film when he said, “Ignoring the problem is the biggest problem.”

“I think,” one student told the class, “the government thinks the more truth the people know, the more troubles the government will suffer.”

“I think she’s the only journalist to tell the truth,” one student said of Chai Jing, the reporter who made the film.

“Everyone in China is under the dome,” said another student. “That’s a Chinese fact.”

“We ordinary people want to change,” another commented, “but we don’t have the power.”

One of my favorite maxims from journalism school was, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” The rise and fall of Under The Dome is just one more anecdote on how little sunshine breaks through here, in the literal or figurative sense.

Still, one of my friends told me Under The Dome was playing on loop at his gym weeks after it was banned. A few students reported they could still find the movie, even without a VPN. A couple even enthusiastically asked me for a copy of the entire film.

Their interest and perceptiveness impressed me, but college students here still seem much less worldly than in the West. And that is certainly by design.

China’s education minister said recently, “We must, by no means, allow into our classrooms material that propagates Western values.”

And yet, here I am.

I can’t fault the Chinese for wanting self-determination; after all, the U.S. wouldn’t encourage material that propagates supposedly communist Chinese values in schools, but we would never hear a high-level official being so blunt about it without serious backlash. The problem is, this isn’t just about individual or national self-determination; it’s about citizens not seeing any other views besides the one handed down from the elite group that is the Chinese Communist Party.

Since January, the government has been cracking down on VPNs (the software used to access blocked websites as if you were in a free country) and increasing censorship in general since last year’s Tiananmen anniversary. (A lot of the commercial VPN programs don’t work as well as they used to, but many underground programs are still running well.)

This has been one of the most frustrating things for me about living in China. Not just because it’s inconvenient to have to use slow, unreliable VPNs to get to the real Internet, but because not having the freedoms of expression or information is philosophically terrifying. And it’s occasionally terrifying in a more literal sense, such as when I read about Chinese journalists asking good questions and then disappearing, or perhaps first being “invited” for “tea” with the “police.”

Knowing such power is out there, that it’s real and it’s the current regime of the country where I (for reasons that sometimes escape me) live, is scary, infuriating, and sometimes humbling, but I still can’t bring myself to shut up about it.

Right now, it seems nothing is too petty for the censors here to block. But I’m convinced they won’t be able to keep it up for long. Based on what I see every time I leave my apartment, roughly everyone in China is online 100 percent of the time. As more people discover how easy it is (even after the crack-down) to download a VPN and make a Facebook account or watch American TV shows on YouTube, the government’s façade of “Internet sovereignty,” the term they use to justify censorship, will crack. It’s unimaginable to me that such devout Internet lovers would continue to accept the imitation they’re being fed. The only questions are how long it will be before Beijing admits it can’t control information in the Information Age, and how much drama we will all have to endure before that happens.

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