Less censorship may go a long way

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2012, 12:00am


It must be a conspiracy. Perhaps engineers working for the banned religious group Falun Gong hacked into the computer system for the Shanghai Composite Index. How else could you explain that on the most politically charged date of the year - June 4 - the index tumbled exactly 64.89 points? That's not the only coincidence. The market opened at 2,346.98 points; Monday marked the 23rd anniversary of the brutal crackdown, and 46.98 is the fateful date read backwards.

Some people initially joked in the Chinese blogosphere that mainland censors would have to shut down the stock market and block discussion of it. Well, that turned out to be no joke. The index stayed open but 'Shanghai Composite Index' has been added to a list of sensitive words and phrases blocked on mainland microblog searches. However, that didn't stop people discussing it.

Thanks to heavy-handed censorship, what started off as niche discussions in obscure corners of the internet became big news in the world press.

There is a lesson to be learned here for mainland authorities. When a topic becomes taboo, it does not disappear. It has a way of sneaking past censors via coded messages such as the clever use of images, words and phrases. It may be true many young people on the mainland today know little about June 4. But it is as likely that their ignorance is due to a general lack of interest in history and current affairs as much as to the effect of censorship.

It is wholly unrealistic to expect the mainland to allow the kind of free media and expression enjoyed in Hong Kong and Western democracies. But it would further the soft power and influence of the central government if censorship were exercised with more finesse and intelligence.

Loosening its grip a bit may actually help improve Beijing's image and credibility at home and abroad. Generally, intelligent discussions are better than suppression. In any case, it is doubtful that China, however wealthy and powerful, will ever become a 'normal' country until its citizens can openly discuss this terrible episode in our history.