China Cracks Down on Ideas. And Music. And Advertising.

The government of China finally confirmed that it has detained the artist Ai Weiwei. Meanwhile, Evan Osnos writes from Beijing for the New Yorker about China’s “Big Chill”:

Step by step—so quietly, in fact, that the full facts of it can be startling—China has embarked on the most intense crackdown on free expression in years. Overshadowed by news elsewhere in recent weeks, China has been rounding up writers, lawyers, and activists since mid-February, when calls began to circulate for protests inspired by those in the Middle East and North Africa. By now the contours are clear: according to a count by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, the government has “criminally detained 26 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under soft detention.”

Indeed, everywhere I turn today, there’s news about Chinese censorship and fear of dissent, of ideas, of art, of words like “luxury.” The Washington Post has a major article on Bob Dylan’s concert Wednesday night in Beijing. Dylan, the troubadour of the peace movement and the Sixties and civil rights, in the capital of the world’s largest Communist party-state. How’d that go? Ask Keith Richburg, whose Post article is titled “The times they are a-censored”:

Rock music icon Bob Dylan avoided controversy Wednesday in his first-ever appearance in Communist-led China, eschewing the 1960s protest anthems that defined a generation and sticking to a song list that government censors say they preapproved, before a crowd of about 5,000 people in a Soviet-era stadium.

Keeping with his custom, Dylan never spoke to the crowd other than to introduce his five-member band in his raspy voice. And his set list – which mixed some of his newer songs alongside classics made unrecognizable by altered tempos — was devoid of any numbers that might carry even the whiff of anti-government overtones.

In Taiwan on Sunday, opening this spring Asian tour, Dylan played “Desolation Row” as the eighth song in his set and ended with an encore performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” whose lyrics became synonymous with the antiwar and civil rights protest movements.

But in China, where the censors from the government’s Culture Ministry carefully vet every line of a song before determining whether a foreign act can play here, those two songs disappeared from the repertoire. In Beijing, Dylan sang “Love Sick” in the place of “Desolation Row,” and he ended his nearly two-hour set with the innocent-sounding “Forever Young.”

There was no “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” in China. And definitely no “Chimes of Freedom.”

Meanwhile, NPR reports that Beijing has banned words such as “luxury,” “supreme,” “regal,” and “high-class” on billboards:

The city’s new rules state that ads must not glorify “hedonism, feudal emperors, heavenly imperial nobility” or anything vulgar, according to the Global Times newspaper. They also should not violate “spiritual construction” standards or worship foreign products — leading some to believe the campaign could be targeting foreign luxury goods.

“The truth is that the party has very clearly started what is very clearly a campaign against ostentation in China,” says David Wolf of Wolf Group Asia, a communications advisory agency. “There is a pushback against things Western. And there is the desire to see those Western things take a lesser role in the development of Chinese culture.”…

China Daily reports that the campaign is aimed at protecting social harmony, quoting a sociologist who says advertisements that promote the belief that “wealth is dignity” could upset low-income residents.

Now there’s some good old-fashioned communist thinking! Of course, communists with the courage of their convictions would ban the products, not just the ad copy. But it’s nice to see the old values survive.

In some ways the government’s confirmation that it has detained Ai Weiwei is the most chilling indication of the new climate. It came in an editorial in Global Times, a vigorous presenter of the government line. Just listen to the combative language:

Ai Weiwei likes to do something “others dare not do.” He has been close to the red line of Chinese law….

The West ignored the complexity of China’s running judicial environment and the characteristics of Ai Weiwei’s individual behavior. They simply described it as China’s “human rights suppression.”

“Human rights” have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world.

“Human rights” are seen as incompatible things with China’s great economic and social progress by the West. It is really a big joke. Chinese livelihood is developing, the public opinion no longer follows the same pattern all the time and “social justice” has been widely discussed. Can these be denied? The experience of Ai Weiwei and other mavericks cannot be placed on the same scale as China’s human rights development and progress.

As I’ve written before, China faces a dilemma. They have opened up their economy and reaped huge benefits, perhaps the largest advance in human well-being in the history of the world – as the editors of Global Times defiantly argue. But if China wants to become known as a center of innovation and progress, not just a military superpower or a manufacturer, it will need to open further. Investors want to put money into a country with the rule of law. Creative people want to live in a country that allows them to read, write, think, and act freely.

Way back in 1979, David Ramsay Steele, author of From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation, wrote about the changes beginning in China. He quoted authors in the official Beijing Review who were explaining that China would adopt the good aspects of the West–technology, innovation, entrepreneurship–without adopting its liberal values. ”We should do better than the Japanese,” the authors wrote. “They have learnt from the United States not only computer science but also strip-tease. For us it is a matter of acquiring the best of the developed capitalist countries while rejecting their philosophy.” But, Steele replied, countries like China have a choice. “You play the game of catallaxy, or you do not play it. If you do not play it, you remain wretched. But if you play it, you must play it. You want computer science? Then you have to put up with strip-tease.”

How much freedom can China’s rulers tolerate? How much repression will its citizens tolerate? How many ambitious, creative Chinese will leave the world’s largest market to find more creative freedom elsewhere? These may be the most important questions in the world over the next generation.