Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Facebook, Taiwan, and a Waitress's Comments on Censorship in China

Several months ago while at a cafe in Chengdu, Sichuan, I spoke with one of the waitresses and asked her a number of questions about her use of the Internet.  Eventually, the conversation touched on the issue of online censorship in China.  In summary, she expressed that she didn't like it in terms how it directly impacted her online experience, but she felt that it was for the best so that China could maintain stability during its current stage of development.

I've heard similar comments from many others across China.  There's much I could say about this viewpoint, but for now I'll just share what followed in this particular case since I believe it highlights some deeper issues and I hope it can stimulate further discussion.

After her comments defending censorship, I simply asked the waitress to take a look at the screen of my laptop, and I pulled up a browser window with Facebook on it.  After looking at the screen for a few moments she asked me how I could be using Facebook -- she knew it was blocked in China.  I briefly explained how I used a VPN to get through China's Great Firewall.

I then pointed out some posts a friend had written on Facebook entirely in Traditional Chinese (Language note: Some Chinese characters exist in both a Simplified Chinese form and a Traditional Chinese form.  In mainland China and Singapore typically Simplified Chinese characters are used when available.  In other places such as Hong Kong or Taiwan typically only Traditional Chinese characters are used).  I asked the waitress what she thought of the posts.  She said she felt that my friend had a "special" way of expressing herself since she used Traditional Chinese.  I suspected the waitress's impression was based on the assumption my friend lived in mainland China, so I then told her that my friend lives in Taiwan.  The waitress nodded and understood that it would be typical for my friend to use Traditional Chinese.

I waited.

After looking at the screen for a bit longer the waitress suddenly cocked her head, looked at me, and with a puzzled expression asked, "They can use Facebook in Taiwan?"  I explained that Facebook wasn't blocked in Taiwan and anyone there was free to use it.

Her face quickly shifted to an indignant expression, and she emphatically said, "That's not fair!  Why can they use it and we can't?!?"

In later discussion she expressed that she was frustrated that she couldn't use a service such as Facebook.  I think it's particularly striking how her expressed acceptance of censorship significantly changed in a short period of time without any confrontational debate or explicit argument.  Instead of justifying the censorship she was beginning to strongly and openly question it.  Especially given the informal nature of this interaction, whether this indicated a deep change of opinion or an opening up of ideas already held is difficult to confidently determine.  Regardless, what she expressed, both verbally and emotionally, had shifted dramatically over the course of the discussion.

In part, I believe what occurred was that the waitress had previously been able to rationalize why it was OK she didn't have the same freedoms as someone in a place such as the US by noting the differences between the countries and cultures.  However, people in Taiwan can be considered "Chinese people" -- from the perspective of the waitress this was true both in terms of ancestry and of country.  Seeing that what was closed off to her and others in mainland China was freely available to anyone in Taiwan made it more difficult for her to maintain her earlier justification of censorship.  I also suspect the comparison to Taiwan impacted her sense of pride and caused a more visceral reaction.

I never did try to provide the waitress an answer to her question about why people in Taiwan can use Facebook but people in mainland China can not.  It was a question I could have easily asked her myself without even bothering with my laptop or Facebook.

But it makes all the difference that she asked it herself.


  1. I was in China for two years. Most people I met justified things for the benefit of unity in developing China.