On being harmful to social management

17 Comments

According to a post on Global Voices, Sven Englund, a Swede studying in Shanghai’s Fudan University, has been interrogated and has had his passport confiscated by Shanghai police after writing a “letter” to the Chinese President Hu Jintao in his Chinese-language blog.

Not wishing to bring any undue wrath down on me or mine, I’ll not re-post Sven’s letter, which GV has translated. Essentially it asks China’s president to join him in a flash mob event in Shanghai (or the president’s city of choice) on July 1st promoting “freedom”.

According to his summoning notice, Sven is suspected of “being harmful to social management” and has violated article 55 of the “PRC social security management law”, which I’m guessing is the one about no protesting or organizing large gatherings without permission.

My gut reaction is: Sven, dude… what were you thinking?

But then maybe I’m just getting old and complacent. Probably I am.

When I first started blogging in China I had long chats with other bloggers in the sinosphere about how far the line could be pushed without consequence. Mostly that meant avoding getting blocked, but other (more dire) repercussions were never far from mind.

In the years since, my opinions have fractured many times over, and the cut and dry issues I once saw now seem a bit naive. Rarely do I now feel qualified enough to write about as complicated an issue as freedom of speech/expression in China.

The biggest thing that’s changed over the years is a general dampening of the sense that we all have a duty to be crusaders carrying the banner of liberty into dark and dreary lands. I now believe that if you can choose to live in a place (ie. you’re a visitor, not a citizen), you should have a greater requirement to abide by and respect that place’s rules, particularly if you disagree with them. If you can’t leave a place (ie. you are a citizen), then you have a greater requirement to make those rules reflect your views.

I recognize that this is somewhat at odds with the reality of the situation which generally gives us as foreigners quite a bit more leeway and freedom than your average Chinese.

My view becomes further complicated when you are a resident of a place but not a citizen, and I’m not too proud to admit that I really have no idea how to reconcile that conflicting grey area. A resident certainly has more stake in a place than someone who is here for a limited time and just interested in gleaning something (education, experience, adventure, money, sex, etc.), but still the place doesn’t generally make up as core a part of their personal identity as it does when you are a citizen of that place.

I bristle every time I see that so-familiar “You’re a guest here, if you don’t like it, go home!” reaction to anything that remotely hurts the feelings of China. But I also feel there’s more wisdom in that phrase than the knee-jerkiness of it lets on.

The degree to which you have the ability to “go home” is proportional to the amount of dog you have in the fight, and inversely so to the potential long-term change you can affect and consequences you face.

And I guess that’s why as much as my personal views are well aligned with what Sven was attempting to promote, I don’t think the police are in the wrong here. Undoubtedly many will feel that Sven’s interrogation and passport being confiscated are examples of the draconian situation in China. For me it just seems like a young guy who knowingly climbed into the pen and agitated the panda.

What do you think?

Follow @svenenglund for updates on his situation.

Talk on On being harmful to social management


17 Comments
  1. “Knowingly climbed into the pen and agitated the panda,” sure, I agree. Not sure that means the police were in the right, though. In fact, it seems to me that the police were being just as, if not MORE, naive than Sven.

    Most of the posts on his blog have few if any comments, and a five minute flash mob of three or four people isn’t going to cause any kind of social problem. There was no need to react so severely, and by doing so, they’ve yet again created negative news about themselves out of thin air. What’s the point?

    Also, is there any evidence that Sven tried to get anyone to come to this other than Hu Jintao? I haven’t read his blog post, but a two-man (or, to be realistic, one man) flash freeze mob shouldn’t violate any Chinese law (is there a law about being weird in public)?

    Far as I’m concerned, this is yet another case of dumb foreigner meets overly paranoid, power-tripping cops. The repercussions aren’t good for anyone involved, and both parties should have known what the results of their actions would be.

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      It’s an interesting point — does the flash mob action actually have to take place to break Chinese law? Any Chinese legal experts out there? If I plan to rob a bank, is there a crime committed? My guess would be no and I don’t think anyone believes that Sven isn’t going to get his passport back or that he’ll spend any time in jail. Hassling people they think are going to break laws is sort of a cops primary time-killer, isn’t it?

      I agree absolutely though that this creates negative West-ward facing news for China and could have easily been avoided/ignored (blocking all rivers from Sina Weibo being an even finer example of this).

      • Well, according to the summons pictured on Global Voices on-line, Sven violated article 55 in China’s law on public order. The said paragraph reads:

        第五十五条 煽动、策划非法集会、游行、示威,不听劝阻的,处十日以上十五日以下拘留。

        “Anyone who incites or plans illegal meetings, processions or demonstrations, and who refuses to be dissuaded (by authorities) shall be punished by detention in 10 to 15 days.”

        The first thing to note here is that according the laws of the PRC, the “crime” is a minor violation of public order, not the type of infraction that would make you expelled anywhere in the world. The article does not even talk about expulsion of foreigners or confiscation of passports. And we can further note that Sven did agree to withdraw his call for a flash mob, which makes you wonder if article 55 is applicable at all. And I did not hear of Sven having access to any legal help while in police custody.

        So this is not a legal question, but a political one. If anything similar to this happened to a Chinese student in Sweden, the Swedish and foreign press would be grilling the Swedish police.

  2. I’m trying but I still don’t see the wisdom in the ‘if you don’t like it go home’ statement. That one usually comes from folks who a happily unaware of any problem and want to remain blissfully ignorant. Constructive criticism and constructive action of the society and community helps not hurts Chinese people.

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      Wisdom doesn’t always come from intelligence, and I’m definitely not accrediting the spouters of such a statement as being wise — very often it’s the opposite. That doesn’t make it less true though. Constructive criticism only works if it is received as “constructive”, otherwise, it’s not constructive at all. Likewise, constructive action — and I can’t think of a single example of constructive action by a foreigner in China. Constructive action and criticism has to come from someone within a circle that cannot be assumed to have ulterior motives, and unfortunately foreigners in China aren’t in that position. I hope that at some point in the future that’s not the case, and perhaps through what I’m deeming ‘useless or naive’ action now, that may help bring about such a change. I’m not really speaking about what could be though, only what is now. When things change, it wont be at a laowai’s hands or on a laowai’s blog.

      • Constructive action and criticism has to come from someone within a circle that cannot be assumed to have ulterior motives, and unfortunately foreigners in China aren’t in that position. I hope that at some point in the future that’s not the case, and perhaps through what I’m deeming ‘useless or naive’ action now, that may help bring about such a change. I’m not really speaking about what could be though, only what is now. When things change, it wont be at a laowai’s hands or on a laowai’s blog.

        Ryan, I totally agree with you…

        I would even say that it irritates me when new laowai or foreign bands come over here and think they are going to start a revolution by riling up the Chinese people because they of their feelings on free speech or Tibet,etc. The Chinese people are not stupid, they watched the Arab Spring and if they ever decide to change things here, it will not be because of a laowai blog. People will criticize me for saying this, but I found Bjork’s comments in Shanghai totally inappropriate and naive. If she’s a guest in a foreign country, she can wait until she gets home to offend the government. If people really want Chinese youth or society to be exposed to foreign bands, music, ideas, then they have to understand that people like Bjork make that impossible..I was at Midi this year and a band from Canada was nauseatingly trying to work up the crowd that, ‘it all starts with a dream, an idea. We’re in it together, we wont’ take it blah blah.’ Instead of being impressed as maybe 10 years ago I would have been, I found them misled and ignorant of the situation.

    • I suspect this is a “getting-famous-overnight (in Sweden as well as in the western world)” tactic. Compared to Susan Boyle getting famous overnight after her talent show (her voice) on Britain’s Got Talent, you do a political show on the Swedish-Expat-Got-Extreme-Courage stage.

      Before this show you were just an ordinary nobody to whom the media never paid attention. This show attracted the attention from all major international media as well as all Swedish media, and you became famous in Sweden or even worldwide.

      Although at the price of deportation from China and possible future visa rejection, the benefits significantly outweigh the cost. These include but are not limited to:

      1) A shining point in your CV in the eyes of a number of prospective employers and accompanying job opportunities;
      2) A positive public image and a wide exposure in Sweden as well as in the western world, as well as potential advertisement opportunities…

  3. I have to wholeheartedly disagree with the opinions in this post. While I am not surprised at the results of Sven’s open letter to Hu Jintao, and certainly not in any sense outraged, I do see value in what he did. I agree that change in China has to come from within and no laowai can lead that change, but the very reaction he got shows that what he did was not useless. The Chinese government is afraid of ideas and any challenge to its authority, no matter how small. Foreigners can bring ideas in and, fortunately for them and unfortunately for the Chinese people, have much greater leeway when it comes to thumbing their noses at authority. Sure this is engendered by their having less at stake and the ability to easily leave China (or it raises the stakes for the government by blowing it up into a diplomatic and international media incident.) That is why I have little respect for the foreigners that come to China and just take their paychecks. Quoting Uncle Ben from Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Foreigners can get away with it and should more often than they do.

    Sven was extremely successful with his stunt as a way of criticizing the system. As has been pointed out the authorities could have, should have, ignored this and it would not be any sort of an issue. Instead Sven has gotten an overreaction from the authorities and highlighted the repressive and ridiculous nature of the system. We are reading and writing about it, and that is worth something.

    (And by the way, thank you and C. Custer for your good work on this blog and on twitter- otherwise I wouldn’t have come across this!)

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      We had a post on here a couple months ago that goes a long way to positively illustrating your point Max. A foreigner in Guangzhou was standing up to government officials breaking traffic laws, and it inspired at least one Chinese to consider the issue.

      So there’s definitely a case for foreign values and ideas being imported, and China benefiting in some way.

      Sven was extremely successful with his stunt as a way of criticizing the system. As has been pointed out the authorities could have, should have, ignored this and it would not be any sort of an issue. Instead Sven has gotten an overreaction from the authorities and highlighted the repressive and ridiculous nature of the system. We are reading and writing about it, and that is worth something.

      As far as I know it’s not being discussed outside of the expat circles (and even inside it’s pretty limited I think), and on any given day there’s certainly no shortage of foreigners chatting about the “repressive and ridiculous nature of the system” — with or without Sven’s situation. It’s value as a catalyst for me blogging about some ideas I’ve had for a while has worth to me, and the conversation here in the comments even more so, but all of that is still extremely isolated from China and the Chinese and any positive change.

      In some ways it reminds me of foreign protests around the Olympics (here and here), and I’m certain my opinions about this are coloured by that nonsense.

      That is why I have little respect for the foreigners that come to China and just take their paychecks. Quoting Uncle Ben from Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Foreigners can get away with it and should more often than they do.

      I just don’t see the “great power”. Lets assume for a moment that Sven was staying in China long term and getting a pay cheque and then did what he did. The net result would just be him getting kicked out of China and losing that pay cheque. That’s a pretty steap price to pay so some foreigners have a weekend talking point. For me, I respect the laowai office worker in Shanghai that took his pay cheque and went out for drinks with friends a whole lot more. In a small, but more tangible way, he gave support to helping foster a system that is much more likely to lead to positive change than flashmobs of foreigners and prodding the legal system.

      • “Great power” is indeed overstating the case, but I couldn’t resist the Spiderman quote.

        Still, I’m not sure what social benefits China gets from expats going drinking in Shanghai. Other than injecting money into the system, and likely mainly into the pockets of an already relatively wealthy and well-connected bar owner, the impact is negligible. Now if he gets into a real conversation about human rights, censorship, the GFW, etc. with his Chinese colleagues at that bar then that would be different, but realistically this doesn’t happen all that often.

        It is hard to predict what will happen in Sven’s case- it could be picked up by major media at some point or become a talking point in Sweden at least. Even if this is as far as it gets, I still say job well done to him. There is no crime in writing an open letter to a politician, even if it isn’t to one’s own leader.

      • Max (and Ryan):

        All the well-established Swedish newspapers have actually already written about it. I don’t know if it’s been on Swedish television, but national radio made a piece about it with an interview with Sven.

        The article in Dagens Nyheter – which is one of the most well-read and respected newspapers in Sweden – has since yesterday received 164 comments on their website, some praising him while many others criticizing him. Some are emphasizing that “we shouldn’t intervene in Chinese politics”, that “foreigners should obey to China’s laws” and so on while some others think the Swedish Foreign Affairs should make a formal complaint to the Chinese authorirites. So I guess it’s fair to say that it’s already a “talking point” in Sweden.

      • Thanks for the update Anton and background info- I am glad to hear that. Reading about the discussion in Sweden I am moved to add my own 2 cents (or rather more like its equivalent value of 400 Vietnamese dong- same value, but more zeros and unnecessary bits of paper.)

        My take is that in general people should obey laws in foreign lands, and indeed most laws period, but some laws are flawed and should be broken on principle. Especially laws written only to perpetuate a corrupt system of entrenched interests. These laws violate a higher ethical code: human rights for some, religion for others. Whatever punishments are given for violating these flawed laws serve only to highlight the self-serving and oppressive nature of the system. If an individual is willing to take the punishment to highlight the flaws then they should be applauded. (Granted foreigners have a get out of jail free card, which is why Sven is certainly no Liu Xiaobo and real change has to come from within.)

        Since Anton brought this up, I do worry about the growing proportion of people in the West, and certainly not just Sweden, who support the case for Chinese exceptionalism on basic human freedoms. The West seems to be turning conservative and anti-progressive, not challenging authority or standing up for fundamental principles. That this conservative contingent is growing is especially worrying in Scandinavia, which in modern history has usually been, and often still is, in the forefront of supporting the Davids in matches with Goliaths. This Western retreat is due in no small part to the humbling given the West by the global economic crisis and China’s seeming resilience, not to mention China’s economic story over the past 30 years. (Everyone seems to overlook the fact that the Party who isolated China and retarded it’s development for the previous 30 years mainly just undid many of its own economic mistakes without admitting error.)

        Another factor in this retreat is that the US, with significant support from parts of Europe, shot it’s own sacred cows with the war on terror. That hypocrisy has done untold damage to the West’s basic principles, both in the US and the rest of the world. The US has difficulty extricating itself from its own hypocrisy (e.g. Guantanamo, Afghanistan) and the rest of the West has difficulty getting over that hypocrisy (and the Bush era as a whole.) The US has been seen as a Goliath for quite a while now and in addition to the rise of China there is a certain schadenfreude, even among allies, with seeing what is sometimes perceived as the US agenda fail.

        I am rambling to the main point: I lament this attitude that we need to respect laws that are fundamentally wrong. This acceptance enables these laws and makes us complicit in perpetuating the system. Sven got what was expected, not what was deserved. This is what needs to be pointed out (ad nauseum; apologies for the length of this.)

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  5. Here’s where it’s at: foreigners who want to work in support of freedom of expression/social equality/justice/transparency etc… in China, should contribute to local efforts, spearheaded by locals.

    If you see abuse on the street, of the type where street vendors are harassed, the meek are tread upon, by all means use that license to Laowai to bring attention to it, and shame whoever is doing the abusing. But when it comes to calling out a leader in his own country, be smart about it ’cause putting you on plane with persona non grada stamped on your passport ain’t no thing.

    • I would wholeheartedly support you when you support our street vendors. Their survival issue is much more important than the “face” of the city.

      However, I feel very uncomfortable when a foreign calls out our president.

  6. I follow the simple rule, that if I am in a foreign country, like a guest and do not ruffle the feathers. I may not agree or like many aspects of that country but I willing went to that country as a guest and not deported or forced to visit the country. If one lives as a resident for quite a while, that expat can give comments or even join a discussion since that expat has experienced what the citizen of the country has experienced to a certain extent. This still means watch what you say or do and remember as a foreigner, you will get scrutinized more than the average citizen.

    @Max -I do not want to turn this into a political debate but I will say I disagree with you about your comment…Another factor in this retreat is that the US, with significant support from parts of Europe, shot it’s own sacred cows with the war on terror. That hypocrisy has done untold damage to the West’s basic principles, both in the US and the rest of the world. The US has difficulty extricating itself from its own hypocrisy (e.g. Guantanamo, Afghanistan) and the rest of the West has difficulty getting over that hypocrisy (and the Bush era as a whole). I did not agree with President Bush in many thing but I do not point to him as the boogey man many on the Left like to do. This is similar to what the Right did with President Clinton and is doing with current President Obama. I can easily point out that President Obama has kept in place a lot of policies that he criticized like Guantanamo open, we are still in Afghanistan, and Iraq, we still have the Patriot Act in place, etc. Add that we got involved in overthrowing Qaddafy in Libya, with rebels who have members may not be all for peace and freedom that they claim to be.

    T

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