Chinese silence on repression more than government policy

September 3, 2012

According to new research from Murdoch University’s Asia Research Centre, China’s lack of critical political discourse goes beyond government restrictions on free speech.

Senior Lecturer in Chinese Business Dr Yingchi Chu said Chinese resistance to public political debate stemmed from a ‘political unconscious’ grounded in Confucian teachings and attitudes to language.

“When dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, Chinese and Western views of what constituted legitimate political discourse clashed in a spectacular fashion,” Dr Chu said.

“What was most surprising to Westerners was that Chinese citizens from all walks of life weren’t particularly disturbed by their government’s policies. In fact, there was considerable sympathy for how Beijing dealt with disturbances of ‘harmonious society’.”

Dr Chu said Westerners had to realise Confucian teachings of role hierarchy and obedience were still very powerful in Chinese society today.

“This even extends to language. The Confucian style of dialogue involves roles, from emperor to peasant, with appropriate behaviour at each level. Rather than an exchange of ideas, it sets up a master-learner dynamic,” Dr Chu said.

“Questions don’t function to facilitate an exchange of ideas, but are cues for the Master’s answers, which generally take the form of imperatives, advice, rules and principles. This approach to language undermines any ‘natural’ emergence of political dialogue.”

While conceding repression is ongoing in China, including internet police units and undercover agents, Dr Chu notes that the government has relaxed policies around public expression. This includes television programs addressing corruption and some ‘debating programs’.

“These programs are more a rehearsal of the manner of debating than political exchange, and consistently exclude topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, the '89 student movement and human rights,” she said.

Despite her findings, Dr Chu cautions against the notion that critical debate is natural to the West and alien to China.

“Before the Enlightenment, European society was based on political obedience to Church and State. Far from being natural, democracy and critical discourse were hard fought for, took a long time to be accepted and are still regarded as a work in progress,” she said.

‘Cultural Obstacles to Political Dialogue in China’, co-authored with Emeritus Professor Horst Ruthrof, appears in Culture and Dialogue in September 2012.

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