Timothy Garton Ash: Free speech – China and the world

Timothy Garton Ash: Free speech – China and the world

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Editor’s note: China Current’s Chief Editor Alexander Ye had a conversation with Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies and Honorary Chair of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University.

China Current:

The Chinese government is launching a series of anti-corruption campaigns inside its bureaucracy, and it is causing Chinese-style Velvet Revolution. In your point view, what is the goal of the upper echelons of government?

Timothy Garton Ash:

What we know is that the Chinese Communist Party has systematically learnt lessons from the collapse of Communism, like the Soviet Union in Europe. And one of the lessons they learned from Party documents, Western scholarship and Chinese scholarship, is that if your apparatus and bureaucracy becomes very incompetent and very corrupted, then that threats your own position, the position of the Party. This is the number one lesson. And number two, the danger then is that to a certain point, people will start to abandon you, both in society and the bureaucracy. But my view is that the Chinese Communist Party leadership understands this, and that is why it is paying such attention to
Party corruption and so on.

China Current:

Last year, numerous offending officials, especially in Chongqing, were investigated and expelled from the Party. Meanwhile, Chinese social platforms revealed a number of sex scandals involving Party members which led to a government investigation that uncovered corrupt practices. What do you think of this?

Timothy Garton Ash:

I understand their attempts to restore control and discipline within what political scientists called ‘the Party’s fate’. And the question is whether that is enough for China’s continued modernisation. China has very complicated decisions to make. The more advanced the economy becomes, the more complicated the decisions that need to be made are. In many of these decisions it would help to involve other activists, to have more market mechanisms, checks and balances, and more rule of law, and to have more separation of powers and more civil society. That, seems to me, is an empirical statement. You have literally thousands of examples from all around the word in history. And there is not always only one perfect solution, which works everywhere; there are of course different solutions for different places. The British system is different from the American, which is different from the Indian and the Brazilian. But some elements are the same. The problem of how effective it is going to be is far more complicated. 

China Current:

Which sections of society should the government look to first in order to manage reforms?

Timothy Garton Ash:

In a modern complex society, you have to balance the interests. But what I do think is that China is a middling country, but per capita GDP is more than six thousand dollars on average. And what we know is that it now gets more difficult to keep growth going. So every possible interest, whether it is a company, whether it is an effective state or the energy of the people has to be involved to keep the dynamic going.

China Current:

Two years ago, you came to China and accepted an interview with Caixin Media, where you mentioned the Free Speech Debate project at Oxford. Then, the website was blocked. How did you respond to that?

Timothy Garton Ash:

I think it is a great pity. Free debate, freedom of expression and freedom of information are normal assets for our society. If you ask why America is such a dynamic society, and so good at adapting, one of the answers is that it has freedom of expression and freedom of information. To be clear, this is not absolutely black and white: one day, you have nothing; the next day, you have rifeness. But the idea of this project is not for a moment to say we have the answers. The whole idea of the project is to start international transcultural conversation about what the terms of free speech should be and what the limits of freedom of expression should be. I think this kind of debate is going on in China, though it is more difficult than in other places.

China Current:

After President Xi Jinping suceeded Hu Jintao, lots of harsh policies on media control were approved, especially social media platforms. What is your opinion of Xi’s policy and how do you evaluate his actions?

Timothy Garton Ash:

In English, we called it a crackdown. But I would say again, you have to look at the long-term situation. This clearly has had an effect in the short-term, but if you look to the media in the long-term and see how we are going to ensure a stable and peaceful evolutional development of China, then we do not know where is the right way to go. I think that many high level people in China who understand this know that the country needs evolutional reforms inside the system to avoid stagnation followed by explosion.

China Current:

In fact, a great amount of Weibo accounts have been closed because they jeopardise national security, according to official accounts. There are many standards to define national security in different countries. How should we find the dividing line?

Timothy Garton Ash:

The debate of free speech is about two things: one is why we need it, why it is a good thing, and why it is important. Because it helps us to find the truth, it enables us to express ourselves, it helps us live in diversity, it helps us understand each other. The other, what is the legitimate limit of free speech. So for example, as for my privacy, free speech does not mean everybody has the right to know my medical records. This is what I said to my wife last night in my bedroom. As for direct threats of violence, if I say things on the Internet which may get people killed, that should be stopped. And copyright and intellectual property rights are the same. So there are a number of legitimate restrictions on free speech. And every country in the world has some limits based on national security. The question is, where is the limit: is national security narrowly defined really meaning the security of the state? Or is it defined without limits? The question is not whether there should be legitimate limits in the name of national security. It is where the limits are. And the temptation for all governments, particularly for non-democratic governments, is to have this absolutely expansive definition of national security. I just want to remind you that it is not just a Chinese problem. What Snowden showed is that, in the name of national security, the American Security Agency was collecting unbelievable mountains of information about every American’s communications.

China Current:

In recent years, Hong Kong locals have organised a huge number of demonstrations supporting universal suffrage, like Occupy Central. And the Taiwanese government is currently facing considerable opposition to the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement between Taiwan and Mainland. Thousands of Taiwanese have gone out to join the protests urging the government to reject this unjust agreement. But some of the locals insist that this is not a civic practice but a serious political fever. What are your views on this?

Timothy Garton Ash:

There are circumstances in which civil disobedience, with no violent action, is appropriate justified. But in a well-run society, you do not need it. So you want to be in a place where you do not need that kind of action, because you have other ways to express concerns, worries, fears, and discontents. Before thinking about this particular action, you have to ask the question of why they came to this place to demonstrate and protest. There are also many protests in the mainland. That is fine. Because it is a signal and sign of popular concerns – something is wrong.

China Current:

In your book, you state that 1989 was a key turning point. But, as for China, it made no difference. Now, after 25 years, China is once again at a crucial juncture, how can we learn from what happened then and start over?

Timothy Garton Ash:

You have to start at where you are. Over the last ten days, I have taught people in Beijing University, Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; you have fantastic students and actually very good faculties. If I have a concern, it is that I keep being told there are not enough schools and universities with very strong-general knowledge of recent Chinese history. For example, the students should know Deng Xiaoping is most remarkable figure in the 20th century, and the changes he made to help China progress are quite extraordinary.

China Current:

There is a biographical book entitled Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China written by Professor Ezra Feivel Vogel, which is excellent. He explained his views during a speech at the National Library of China last year: the way that Deng Xiaoping dealt with the June 4th Protest had a certain inevitability.

Timothy Garton Ash:

I do not agree. Leaders always have options. There are always other possibilities. But nobody ever does everything 100 percent right, so you have to make complex all-around judgments about what is good, what is bad, and how the development has come around. What is for sure is that to think about China, domestically and internationally, we have to start from 2014, but not 20 or 40 years ago. You have to start from now with China’s current affairs, and understand the complexity of development and the existence of a lot of opportunities, but also some dangers.

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