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Tea Leaves

Why moral outrage is scarce in China

Many citizens know what is happening in their country, but choose not to care

People at a Beijing railway station use their smartphones to watch President Xi Jinping deliver a speech at a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.   © Reuters

Decades of observing and visiting China have taught me that citizens who want to know what is happening in their country and beyond can be reasonably well informed, despite the "Great Internet Firewall," the pervasive censorship, the propaganda-as-news, and blocking of foreign news outlets and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

This conclusion was confirmed on a recent trip to a provincial northeastern city, in my conversations with ordinary people. In one striking encounter, a businessman -- not an intellectual, writer or human rights lawyer -- gave me well-informed, sophisticated views on recent history and current events, including opinions that were clearly not derived from China's official sources.

He knew as much as any regular reader of Western newspapers about the detention of 1 million or so ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang province, and gave no indication of believing that the ongoing protests in Hong Kong were instigated by the U.S. or other "black hands." This man watches the 9 p.m. news on China's Central Television every evening, but displayed a keen sense of the difference between information and propaganda.

There is, of course, hardly any open opposition in China to the government's actions in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong or the South China Sea, or to the ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers. This lack of public pushback is often said to be the result of the effectiveness of China's surveillance state in keeping potential dissenters quiet, and an information deficit imposed by an elaborate Orwellian machinery of intellectual control.

It is argued that propaganda that presents "the world according to the Communist Party" leaves most citizens with little knowledge of opposing views, or awareness that such views exist. That is no doubt true for many people, but my recent visit convinced me that more people have "forbidden knowledge" about sensitive issues than conventional wisdom suggests. There are some issues in China that people are willing to talk about, including internet censorship, environmental degradation and food safety. My impression, though, is that when it comes to matters like cultural genocide in Tibet or detention camps in Xinjiang, many Han Chinese rather complacently assume that their government's policies are sensible and right.

Insofar as people think about Tibet and Xinjiang at all, they feel that the government has devoted vast resources into raising living standards in these areas, and that Tibetans and Uighurs should be grateful. Many also remember incidents in which radicalized or desperate Uighurs have killed Han Chinese in random attacks.

As for the Hong Kong protests, people seem generally aware of the demands for greater freedoms. But there is also resentment of the Hong Kong demonstrators for their apparent absence of pride in belonging to a rising China.

These attitudes should be blamed less on a lack of knowledge than on a public environment that tends to dull the moral sense. Jung Chang, author of "Wild Swans," observed years ago that even before the terror of the Cultural Revolution "many people had been reduced to a state where they did not dare even to think."

The subsequent decades of propaganda glorifying the party, the promotion of "patriotic education" and the displays of mass fealty that, for example, accompanied the recent celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, tend to drown out moral qualms, or at least the impulse to express them.

Perhaps what is absent from the Chinese public sphere is not knowledge itself but emotionally impactful knowledge. It is a bit like the epigram attributed to Stalin: A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. What is missing in China is the jolting awareness of the single death.

I am old enough to remember the worldwide moral shock when the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in Saigon in 1963 to protest the anti-Buddhist policies of the U.S.-backed government in South Vietnam. We knew his name. We saw the pictures of his flaming body. We were horrified, and we made our horror known to our government.

In Tibet, some 150 Buddhist monks have immolated themselves in the last few years to protest China's harsh rule, but even for Chinese who know about these events there are no emotionally riveting pictures, no concrete identities. The deaths are abstractions -- a statistic.

Why does this matter? Because ultimately, the intensifying conflict between China and the liberal-democratic world is not about trade or money, but about values, about the way countries behave in the world. And a country whose capacity for outrage has atrophied can offer no moral compass, no sense of restraint on its government's exercise of raw, self-interested power.

Richard Bernstein is a former foreign correspondent for Time magazine and The New York Times. His latest book is "China 1945: Mao's Revolution and America's Fateful Choice."

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