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Speech and “Harmony” in China: An Experiment

Tom Jacobson's picture

In his book “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a new Global Order,” Martin Jacques argues that China is not only ascendant economically. It is also on a path to marginalize the West and change global conceptions of what is modernity. Does this include modern communication?

In mid-December I visited Wuhan, China, in Hubei Province where Wuhan University’s School of Journalism and Mass Media held a conference on Intercultural Communication and Journalism Ethics, attended by perhaps one hundred scholars mostly from China or greater China. I made a presentation there on the relevance of Habermas’s treatment of modernity for the analysis of Chinese culture. And then traveled to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to deliver a lecture on comparative forms of political legitimacy and the role of communication in relation to each, at the Department of Literature and Journalism in Sichuan University.

As in many places around the world today tradition and modernity rub shoulders in these two cities of interior China. But modernity has arrived with a bang. The Chengdu business district has dusted off its interior-China dust, and with the proliferation of spectacular neon signs and magnum LCDs is advertising the world’s luxury goods as vigorously as Tokyo or Las Vegas. It is as easy to buy Prada there as anywhere. And the media and Internet worlds are rapidly transforming communication patterns. While China’s state run CCTV still keeps a tight lid on public expression nationally there is rapid change on the ground across the country locally. Control still, yes, but less.

The professors I met who study, and live within, all this fall perhaps into three camps. Some are free market ideologues, both within the PRC and outside from greater china, who advocate American styled media and speech rights. Some are unreconstructed communist party members who would prefer to keep a lid on things more or less forever. And some, the largest group, desire freedom of speech but would hope for more civility in the public sphere. Sex and violence, and sexual violence, from the West are plain enough to see globally. And many are aware that the Western mass media fall short of the mark in facilitating meaningful political deliberation.

The Confucian idea of harmony may be used by some within the Party to justify stifling public dissent in the name of cultural tradition. But the idea of harmony is very real among average Chinese citizens, including scholars, and implies among other things civility and respect. Interestingly, the word harmony in English connotes a kind of aesthetic symmetry and implies pleasure in a way that is a very incomplete, even misleading, translation from the Chinese. Thus, many Chinese scholars, and many of the students I have met, would hope for a hybridization of free speech and a kind of “harmony” that practices more respect than political speech entails in the West. But it is difficult for us to understand.

One question: Is it possible to anticipate public speech, in a real and mediated world, that involves the exchange of differing viewpoints but is at the same time actually oriented to respectful understanding? I don’t know whether Jacques is right about China being on a path to change our conceptions of modernity as a whole. But a case can fairly be made that an interesting experiment in the category of political communication there is now under way. And it has implications for communication and governance reform globally.

Comments

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Confucian ideal of harmony is not a great deal more evident in Chinese online discourse than it is on the Web elsewhere. Government-enforced restraint applies to areas of politics and forbidden topics, and official control of access to the Internet means the Government can check, pretty much, on who says what. But there are plenty of areas, essentially unpoliced by the censors, where public outrage or personal animosity seem to get vented in an all-too-familiar manner.

Submitted by Tom J. on
Good point Martin. I believe that different mediums/contexts can embody different manners and protocols. Discourse in America's cyberspace is even rowdier than it is on talk radio. But I do think the Chinese Internet practices are usefully juxtaposed against the Harmony argument. My own post concluded with the question: "Is it possible to anticipate...." some form of public harmony. I think the odds are long. But the desire for some way to retain elements of that part of Chinese culture is so widespread I thought it worth comment.

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