When even the Chinese liberals keep silent

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MANILA: When a government is known to censor truth and suppress freedom of speech, why do its citizens easily take to the streets in protest against their Asian neighbors? The Chinese liberals and pro-democracy groups have kept their silence on China’s territorial encroachment in Asia long enough.

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In an ethics symposium I attended in Washington, D.C. six years ago, the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 was discussed as an example of a government’s attempt to suppress democracy. A Chinese national reasoned that the People’s Republic’s military only responded in self-defense. He said doreign powers instigated and backed the revolution to destabilize the government. The death tolls were exaggerated and the government blameless. The participants which had representatives from at least 15 countries was in an uproar. Everyone knew that those students died for democracy and were silenced by the iron hand of Deng Xiaoping.

Even up to now, the Tiananmen massacre is banned from textbooks and the media, and is essentially removed from China’s history. Internet searches and social media discussions about the event from June 4, 1989 are blocked and policed by the government. Freedom fighters, democratic-leaning citizens and humanitarians use codes to mask messages over the Internet about this event, such as “65-1”, “63+1” and “May 35th.” Yet the voices of freedom from China’s pro-democracy citizens, particularly in Hong Kong, still find a way to commemorate the sacrifices of the students.

Historical revisionism and media content policing still continue in China and goes beyond its borders. With its economic and military supremacy in the Asian region, China has increasingly become more aggressive and less diplomatic in its dealings. China has actively sought to expand its territories both east and west of its borders. In the west, China mobilized its military in a territorial dispute with India’s Ladakh region. In the east, China has claimed the entire South China Sea and the islands in it as its own: territories previously enjoyed as Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China has used its state media to justify its actions to its citizens. Private media channels, including the Internet, are still heavily regulated and censored by the Chinese government. The media has been used to discredit any diplomatic means employed by other countries to resolve territorial disputes. Last year, the Chinese state media published accusations against the Philippines of instigating the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) as accomplices in disputing China’s takeover of territories. It has condemned any arbitration at the United Nations and warned of a “counterstrike” – taken as a military warning.

It is therefore not surprising that there is misdirected anger, coupled with national pride, from the Chinese against their Asian neighbors. The media has been misused in history by many autocratic countries to misinform and cause dissent; this is true even in democratic ones. The Chinese government continues to be one of the worst offenders.

China uses its state media to deploy its “9-Dash Line” map that states, in all absurdity, that anything further than a stone’s throw away from the shores of Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, belong to China. It has completely disregarded the 200-nautical mile EEZ provided by UNCLOS. Under this map, Chinese warships can dock visibly across the Philippine or Vietnamese shores and should not be taken as a threat!

Ironically, the same Chinese pro-democracy, humanitarians and freedom fighters have kept mum about these territorial issues. Even the liberal Chinese from Hong Kong have kept their silence on their government’s military conquest of the South China Sea. Perhaps because there is much to be had in the claim for the South China Sea: it contains 3% of the world’s known oil reserves and 8% of natural gas. Trade routes shared by Asian countries will be monopolized by China. The region is part of the famed Coral Triangle which has one of the richest coral life and marine stock.

The voice of democracy does not speak out only when individual freedoms are suppressed. It requires its citizens to speak out when others countries’ freedoms are threatened. There is no middle ground: defend the freedom encroached upon by your government within and outside your country; otherwise, it just becomes hypocritical.

Speak out when your government antagonizes the same Asian neighbors that have sympathized with your quest for freedom of speech and democracy. The same neighboring countries have welcomed your refugees and taken them as their own. To our Chinese brothers who have democracy on your lips, prove your resolve: it is time for your voices to be heard once again.

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