On being harmful to social management

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.