I've been in China the past week, and as in the past I was unable to access my blog.
Chinese censorship of the internet is more and more bizarre because it is obvious that it doesn't really work. It is a leaking sieve. When I tell Chinese friends and colleagues about my frustration accessing the blog, they explain that there are well-known techniques of circumventing censorship that virtually everyone can use. I'm not there long enough to bother learning how to do this. But it seems that any Chinese person who would be interested enough to read a blog, in English, discussing issues of interest to post-graduate students, will find their way to it.
I had a great visit, and managed to deliver lectures at universities in Shanghai, Harbin and Beijing, where I met many fine students completing masters and doctoral degrees. My lectures were on use of the death penalty for drug crimes and introduction of the crime of aggression into the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Autumn is a fine time of year. The air in Beijing was crisp and clear. Harbin is already getting cold, and they have had their first snow, although it had melted when I was there. Shanghai was buzzing with Expo, but I didn't have time for a visit. I was in Shanghai so briefly that I would not have had time to wait in even a single queue at the world's fair (they are said to take several hours). Apparently Expo has 1 million visitors each day.
This seems to be a difficult time for human rights in China, with more repression than at some times in the past. I was curious to learn more about recently announced proposals to remove 13 death penalty crimes from the criminal law. Colleagues in China suggested that the efforts of our EU-China exchanges on capital punishment made a positive contribution to the debate. It is difficult to know how significant this reform really is, because we have no idea of the number of people who may have been executed for such crimes in the past. Last week I was told by reliable sources that the numbers affected are significant and that the reform - still not completed - is an important one.
When I visit China - this was probably my 20th trip in a decade - I cannot say I meet a cross section of Chinese society. My contacts are with academics and students, mainly. They are perhaps not 'typical' Chinese, but nor are they members of the new aristocracy. In that sense, they are average and representative, and they seem to come from all social backgrounds given that Chinese higher education seems to be slighly more egalitarian - in terms of access- than in the west. And most of them have very liberal and progressive attitudes towards human rights. My impression is that while many of them are disturbed about the big human rights issues, like the death penalty, torture and 'reform through labour', what really matters to them is the somewhat intangible, nebulous notion that we call 'freedom'. They drive the same cars we do, have the latest mobile phones, and drink latte at Starbucks. But there is something that those of us who live in western democracies take for granted and that our Chinese friends are missing: freedom to say what they want, when and where they choose, without fear of arrest or persecution. Even little things, like the annoying but ineffective blocking of access to my blog, remind them of this every single day.