Thursday, December 11, 2008

1984 by George Orwell.

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen".

While China is not straight out of the book, there are some rules there that we would growl at in the west. Particularly I'm speaking about my experiences in internet bars.

When I was in China in the late 90s, there wasn't a lot of concern over news getting to the populace via the world wide web, because not nearly as many people got online and there weren't many blogs or other sites out there that delved into China's political policy. There were a lot of internet bars, but they were primarily used to link computers together for mass warfare games with large groups of people. Starcraft, Warcraft, and Chinese knock-offs were played by groups of students who stayed up through the night trying to out strategize each other.

This time around, the internet bars (or "wang ba", wang meaning net or web, ba meaning bar) had gained popularity and sophistication. All were set up with high-speed connections, and all were air-conditioned. Many of the patrons were still playing games, but a great number were watching movies, listening to music, or chatting online.

I highly doubt there was one government monitor sitting in a dark room somewhere for each patron, watching his or her every move, but all entrants were required to supply an ID card in order to get online. I went to about ten different wang bas to post my blogs and check emails while in China, in all of the cities we visited. The process for locals was the same everywhere. For me, the process changed each time. I was required to leave an ID at the front desk in one case. They asked for my passport. I didn't have it with me that day, so I gave them my Washington state driver's license. When I asked if it would be sufficient, they said it was fine.

At one place, when I walked in and asked for a computer I noticed as I was asking that the room was full. As I asked a guy logged off and stood up. The girl at the front desk said that computer was available while simultaneously a girl who had been waiting her turn stood up to go use it. They made eye contact and she backed down. I put up a brief struggle, asking them to please allow her to go first, but they stood their ground and once I started realizing that continually refusing would cause me to lose face, I acquiesced and took the open table. There was a brief comment from the front desk girl to the girl whose spot in line I was offered about some local government policy, which made me feel slightly less shameful.

This brings up a couple of observations. One is that there is definitely a greater attempt at monitoring the activities of the populace in China than there is in the states. But I think it's emphasized as a larger violation in the US than it really is for the Chinese. Just like their news about the west tends to be skewed towards the negative and very nationalistic, so is ours. We hold our individual rights in higher regard than the Chinese, and I doubt if they were to suddenly become a democratic nation that this would instantly change. They also display a lower level of concern for equal rights than we do.

I heard a radio show on National Public Radio the other day about a woman in Hoboken who was furious about people who knew the parking police getting to park illegally without fear of penalty in a city where parking spaces are precious and limited. She spent a great deal of her free time wandering around the city publicly calling people out for their disregard of the law, in the interest of being fair. The show seemed to be on the woman's side, applauding her for going out and taking action to try to right a wrong. The Chinese people that I know would have either failed to understand what she was doing, thinking she might be mentally imbalanced, or would have thought the whole thing was supposed to be comedic in nature.

I myself found it a sad commentary on our society. She could have more effectively spent her time sleeping in my opinion than worrying about a low-level kind of corruption that has existed in every society throughout history. It formed for me a nice balance. The Chinese have what we view as "Big Brother" watching them, and we have what they view as nut-jobs going completely overboard at any perceived slight to their complete equality. They deserve a little more privacy, while we could use a little more acceptance of how things really work.