In China’s censorship struggle, who’s a liberal?

By Christopher B. Daly 

The struggle over censorship continues in China. While it plays out, American journalists are struggling over political nomenclature.

This has been a problem since early in the 20th Century, when first the Russians and later the Chinese and others had communist revolutions. After that point, those former insurgent leftists became the establishment (with a vengeance, to be sure). They often faced right-wing opposition, which wanted to reverse those revolutions and restore the old (dictatorial) regimes.

But at a certain point, those old communist regimes faced a new insurgency — call it “progressive” perhaps? — that was not counter-revolutionary but was not happy either.

In Russia, in eastern Europe and elsewhere and now in China, people began to challenge the regime on the grounds that they wanted real liberation. They demanded such things as:

–rule of law

–accountability of government officials

–free and fair elections


–free speech & press

–economic opportunity

Many of these demands overlap with the cluster of values often associated with classical “liberalism” in the West. But the term “liberal” was re-purposed in the 20th Century to refer to people like FDR who support the use of government power to intervene in the industrial economy in the interest of full employment and economic security for all.

So, by either definition, it makes little sense to refer to those brave Chinese demanding press freedom as “liberals.” They are not exactly “leftists” either, at least not by most definitions. (Granted, they are, in some ways, to the left of the putatively leftist regime they are challenging, but in terms of political labels, it’s pretty hard to put these people to the left of Mao.)

They are certainly not Communists or communists, either.

It often makes sense to call them “critics,” but then China has right-wing critics too. Journalists often fall back on the all-purpose “dissident,” which has its uses and may not be the worst label, in a pinch.

But this is not a simple question, and it appears to need an answer, judging from the comments accompanying today’s Times story. But it will have to wait. Far more urgent, of course, is the issue of ending censorship.







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2 responses to “In China’s censorship struggle, who’s a liberal?

  1. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added”
    checkbox and now each time a comment is
    added I get several e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove people from that service?


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