Citizenship Season

I’m looking forward to the upcoming election season. It promises to debate the role of government in the economy, health care, and world affairs — something we as a country have been arguing about from our beginning. I’m also looking forward to reading the Funny Times and political cartoons on Facebook, to alleviate the stress, frustration, and anger that inevitably arise when a debated issue treads too close to values I hold dear. Just another election year, like so many others.

But this week I was reminded that open political debate and political cartoons aren’t enjoyed everywhere. Listening to an excellent lecture series on The Fall and Rise of China, I marveled at how similar modern Chinese politics are to our own. China has liberals. China has conservatives. They debate the issues, just as we do. But, unlike a democracy, there are limits on spectatorship, and lampooning the leadership doesn’t go over well. Freedom of speech is still a matter of debate in China. Or is it?

I went searching for China censorship using Yahoo, Google, and Bing. I was surprised. The majority of the page 1 search results were from foreign news outlets: the Guardian, the Register, and the BBC. There were more Wikipedia articles on page 1 than there were American news outlets. When I searched the online versions of the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, similar articles were there, but the search engines hadn’t picked them up.

What’s more, I’d been relying on the NPR app on our household iPad, but the fact that China had been censoring “rumors” of a failed coup attempt was news to me. Perhaps I’d missed the article, but perhaps it wasn’t big enough news to the editors who decide which stories to push to the iPad channel. I searched on — surely my favorite news provider wasn’t giving short shrift to current events in China. Again I was surprised, but pleased this time. Here was a current article about political cartoons in China.

Once again I’m reminded that freedom of the press is a Good Thing, and the Internet is a Good Thing, but to be an informed citizen, you need multiple sources of your news. Don’t rely on one channel. Don’t rely on what the news editors or search engines put on the front page. If you’re interested in a subject, dig a little deeper.

I guess I should thank all those teachers who handed out research assignments, unknowingly preparing me for modern day citizenship. And my parents, who always told me to “look it up” when I had a question.

Still…bummer. Being a well-informed citizen is work.

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