In the dark, 79 pairs of eyes stare at the screen ahead. My In-Depth Reporting class at Fudan University in Shanghai is watching a documentary film titled, “Internet’s Own Boy.” The film follows the life of Aaron Swartz, the founder of Reddit who valiantly fought against the privatization of academic journal articles by publishing companies like JSTOR and Elsevier. Swartz was arrested on charges of wire fraud after being caught downloading JSTOR’s database of journal articles, and while facing 35 years in prison and 1 million dollars in fines, eventually committed suicide.
It is about halfway into the film, and we see Swartz leading the protest against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) Bill in New York. It is jarring. It is jarring to be sitting here, in a classroom of one of the world’s most heavily censored countries, watching New Yorkers walk up and down the streets with large picket signs that reads “Fuck Censorship.” It is jarring to be the only American in the classroom, the only person who lives in a place where the freedom of the press is the norm. It is jarring to look at my classmate to the left of me look up “censorship” on her Chinese-English translator, and to see “he xie,” which literally translates into “harmonize,” appear on the screen. 和谐. Censorship. 和谐. Censorship. She doodles on a paper. It is jarring.
The bell signaling the end of class rings before the film finishes, and many people start walking out. I, with a handful of others, finish the film and head to lunch. Today, Mei Yang accompanies me. Mei Yang is from Songjiang, a suburb of Shanghai about two hours away, and she audits classes at Fudan. Her home is in Hainan Dao, a beautiful island in the south of China filled with leafy palm trees and incredible blue beaches. She is my first friend at Fudan, and we often eat lunch together. Today, I am rather heated up by the movie, and tell her about my jarring experience in the classroom. We discuss the censorship in China, freedom of speech and press in the US, and the recent Hong Kong protests. Then I bring up the Tiananmen Massacre, and the conversation takes a turn.
Many people in China still remember the atrocities of June 4, 1989. A tank, a man, people’s call for democracy, the government’s brutal crackdown. However, it has already been more than 25 years since the incident, and it is quickly fading from the younger generations’ memories. Mei Yang seems genuinely interested, and when I ask her if she has seen “the video,” she shakes her head. I log into my VPN, bring up YouTube, type in “Tiananmen Massacre,” and click on the first video that comes up. It indeed is “the video.” A tank, a man, arms widely outstretched. It is a familiar footage, one of the quintessential images etched in the American mind when we think of China.
“How do you know that this is Beijing?” prompts Mei Yang. I have never been asked this or even thought of this question before, and I am taken aback. “This could be anywhere in China. And also where are the tanks going? How do you know that there are protestors in the back? Why are the tanks going there?” Her questions keep on streaming out, and I tell her the story that I know, but she only listens halfheartedly. Our lunch sits cooling on the table.
“Young people these days know that the government controls the media and tries to cover it up. But I think of it like this. If there is a naughty boy and he does a naughty thing, the mom will know that he has done a naughty thing. But she won’t go telling her neighbors about her son’s actions.” I am left speechless, and she continues. “What is the point of looking back at these events? The time has already passed, and the event has already happened. You can’t do anything about it anymore. You learn and move on. So there is no point in continuing to talk about it.”
Mei Yang is visibly upset. Perhaps because she is surprised at the fact that she has never even heard of such a monumental event that or perhaps because her father was a solider stationed in Beijing 25 years ago. We eventually change the subject, and soon finish our now lukewarm noodles and rice.
Many days later, I am still left thinking about my conversation with Mei Yang. This is the first time that I directly encountered the aftereffects of censorship in China, and it comes to me as an urgent issue. As George Orwell said, “”Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.” This statement could not be more relevant in today’s China, and it is something that those who have privilege in access to knowledge should actively think about. Nevertheless, I still feel jarred.
Sam Jeong ’14 wrote this while living in Shanghai where he was studying Chinese and interning at a startup that deals with anti-counterfeiting IT technology.