(Former title: 9/11 and the Chinese Censorship)
It was a warm summer night in a city in southern Mainland China.
I was sitting at a bar, reading a book, enjoying a cup of local tea, and joking around with the barkeeper.
Earlier that day… I was reading some news online, which was mostly covering the 10 years anniversary for the 9/11 terror attack on the twin towers in New York. Because I usually consume German and Hebrew-speaking news sources before turning to English ones, it was very tempting to do a little test of my own for the Chinese censorship and look at what of the English-speaking arena is accessible in China. I must admit I didn’t notice much difference, maybe I thought I did because I expected to, maybe because the Chinese censor has more urgent matters to filter then a 10 y/o terror attack on its love-hate mistress (a.k.a the United States), or maybe my Chinese is just not good enough to notice the absence of the issue from the Chinese speaking cyberspace.
Back to the bar: various kinds of videos were playing on the big screen above the bar that evening (music videos, interviews, and some of those cat videos you likely to find on youtube) and the barkeeper, who spoke an exceptionally good English, and me grew fond of each other, joked around, shared some drinks, and hoaxed some other guests.
At some point a 9/11 video started playing on the big screen and I recognized the images as part of the ones that were released that day for the first time, as part of the 10th anniversary to the event.
Considering the mixture of the videos that evening, it was quite an exceptional sight. I knew that the videos are running from the laptop behind the bar, so that someone had to download them first, it was no random choice of some online service. The next thing I know, I hear myself asking the barkeeper how they got this video.
She didn’t really understand what I meant and explained that the videos are running from the hard drive, so that the Internet connection won’t be overloaded. As I tried to explain myself, I got a partial answer to my question – she just didn’t know what I was talking about because the content of the video was foreign to her. So I told her about the 9/11.
it’s because it happened 10 years ago, maybe because she just doesn’t consume much news, maybe she has other news-topics that interest her. But from her fascination as I told her the story and showed her some pictures on my computer I understood that it isn’t one of the explanations I just mentioned.
So what is it than? How come an almost-perfect-English-speaker never heard of the 9/11 but a newly released video of it is running in her bar?
So I asked. I told her I was wondering if it is easy to access such news or videos there, or if it’s censored. Now she got it.
She tried to explain, mentioned the earth-quacks in Sichuan province a month ago to give another example, started to say something about the news coverage, and then stopped.
The same perky girl that just up until now looked at me in the eyes and smiled, was looking down, confused, eyes trying to focus without success, I could literally see a million thoughts running through her head, but she just lost all words.
She looked back up and asked to change the subject; she doesn’t want to talk about it. Of course I understood, apologized from the bottom of my heart and told her we can completely forget about this conversation.
But I will never forget it.
With perfect timing, my meal came. I never ate so slowly in my life, my head was just someplace else. Later, as she was walking around with her charming smile and shining eyes, I apologized again, she again told me it’s no problem, and I hope it really isn’t.
The next morning…
I continued my trip, so that I never got to meet her again but this encounter kept me disturbed for days afterwards. It is impossible to put into words, but once I saw the sudden change in this lively girl, once I saw those eyes, I got a sneak peek of what it is like.
It has been several years since I started working on subjects such as freedom of expression, censorship etc. And believe me – one can know a lot. But now I also felt it. And it’s different.
It wasn’t a life changing experience; it was more of a reassuring one. I won’t deny feeling somewhat helpless, and I don’t fantasize about me changing the world.
But it won’t stop me from keep trying. Not after looking into those eyes.