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The Value Of Freedom, The Ugliness of Censorship: Google, the UFC, and China

Saturday, Mar 27, 2010
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UFC President Dana White isn’t exactly going to win any PC awards anytime soon. The notorious spokesman for the rapidly-growing full contact martial arts empire is known for his tendency to speak first and think later. In one famously public tirade, White went ballistic on journalist Lorretta Hunt, calling her a “bitch” and a “moron” and labeling one of her sources both a derogatory term for homosexual and a derogatory term for female genitalia, respectively.

Apparently however, White’s predilection for free expression is not something that he values in those who work for him. Hence his decision to remove welterweight contender Dan Hardy’s Tibetan language tattoo from all promotions for the upcoming UFC 111 fight, in order to not offend the Chinese government.

“I’m trying to get into China. I don’t need anti-Chinese government stuff on my fighters” said White, eloquent as always.

Leaving aside the fact that there is in fact no “anti-Chinese government stuff” in the tattoo, which is an apolitical Buddhist prayer, White’s statement actually deserves a little more analysis than it has been getting. Basically, in true Dana White fashion, the statement cuts to the heart of what every major corporation over the last decade and a half has been saying about China behind closed doors but rarely has the cojones to say publicly: That the potential dollars to be gained from access to the Chinese market is worth compromising our own values — particularly that of free speech.

Amazingly, the idea is so commonplace that it barely raises an eyebrow anymore. But it is worth asking: In what world exactly, Mr. White, is it OK to condone censorship and violate free speech in order to make a buck?

The Chinese government, in forwarding its political agenda through harassment and intimidation, is relying on exactly this type of behavior from corporate heads and media moguls like Dana White. Eventually, they are banking on the fact that they will not even have to ask their government and corporate partners to do things like un-invite “controversial” speakers like the Dalai Lama, or cut academic references to Tibet in order to not be “offensive.” A government that can influence and rule by proxy is a strong government indeed, and so, if China’s agenda is fulfilled, the rewriting of Tibet, its history, and its culture and the gradual elimination of all things Tibetan (aka “offensive) will be carried out not just by the PRC, but by all of us. And Dana White has just helped “us” along the way.

In a world where values spread along the currents of communication, it has always been commonplace for business leaders to say to Tibet activists that open trade with China will result in a loosening of China’s restrictions on free speech, that the values of democracy and freedom will be alchemically infused into the Chinese system, that we will “change” China… Our response has always been the same: “We’re not changing China, China’s changing us.”

This week, finally, an American corporation stood up to the fossils in Beijing who think that throwing writers and free thinkers in jail for their political views still has a place in the 21st century. Google followed through on their promise to deliver uncensored search results in China and, as a consequence, they are on their way out. Shortly thereafter, and network solutions, in response to the Chinese government’s brazen attempts to gain information on everyone who registers a domain in China, announced that they will no longer be registering .cn domain names.

In response, the Chinese government has done what it does best — sought to control the story and punish any malcontents. The Washington Post yesterday published a list of criteria, handed down from the Chinese censors to domestic sites and blogs, for how to correctly report on the google situation.

It forbids mention of the “google topic” on blogs. It insists that only the approved state language be used. And of course, it requires that anyone who comments inappropriately, any local or national news site that does not follow protocol, anyone who veers from the handed down official state version of events, be reported on. If you know China, you have a pretty good idea what happens after they are reported on.

I encourage Dana White and his slightly less verbose corporate counterparts to take a nice long look at this list. I suggest they really think about it for a minute and ask themselves if this type of Orwellian witchery is really something they want to have a hand in.

To answer my own question to Mr. White: Its never OK, Dana. Ever. Doctoring photos to tell a different version of the truth is simply not OK. Stalin did it regularly. The Chinese state media does it. FOX News even occasionally does it. Its not OK, and doing it because you want to make a buck does not excuse it. In fact it makes all the slimier.

Today its wiping away harmless Tibetan language tattoos. Where exactly does that type of thinking lead tomorrow? We know where it leads. Once a decision is made that it is acceptable to alter history, to tell a different story, to tell people not to use certain words or teach certain concepts, there is only one place that leads, and it is not a place most of us on the people’s side of the equation want to go.

The internet is a fitting battleground for the clash of two contrasting worldviews. In this world, there are those who seek to speak freely and those who seek to deny that right. The question for a long time has been who in this battle will gain the upper hand. The answer is no more clear, but at least now the side that’s right has some new champions. And one very vocal turncoat. Look it up, Dana.

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