Is Freedom Forever?


"We will defend our freedom. We will bring freedom to others and we will prevail."

So spoke George W Bush on the eve of the US’s invasion of Iraq five years ago this week, in a typical example of US post-World War II rhetoric. Freedom has a powerful resonance with audiences in the Western world, as one of the features of our society that makes ‘us’ different from ‘them’. And it is generally true that Western countries allow a higher degree of personal freedom – historically, freedom has been both a cause and a consequence of being a powerful country. But this means that not only are the facts more complex than the rhetoric, they are actually changing with shifts in global power. Nowhere is this becoming more recognisable than in comparing the situation in China with that of the Anglophone countries.

Freedom is one of the main issues the West uses to "express concern" (ie grandstand) about China’s domestic policy. And China can of course be brutal – witness the most recent crackdown on protests in and related to ‘autonomous’ Tibet.

Online, we have seen some prominent examples of Chinese censorship because they were tied to US companies: Google censors its search results in the PRC, Yahoo seems to still be turning over users’ private data, and as Antony Loewenstein wrote for recently, the Chinese Government is getting even tougher in the lead up to the Olympic Games.

Away from the net, the Congressional-Executive Committee on China maintains comprehensive information on the ways free speech is suppressed in China. The US State Department cites "continuing concerns" in each update on human rights in China. For its part, the Chinese Government insists that human rights in the country have never been better.

According to Rob Gifford, a correspondent for NPR with extensive experience in China, speaking at a recent public forum in Hong Kong, these apparently conflicting statements are actually both true – meaning that as bad as the situation in China is, there has actually been some progress. More specifically, Gifford contextualised the issue within China’s economic advance, saying that most people had focused on making money for the past decade but that free speech was now becoming more of an issue. The Chinese debate political reforms quite openly now, Gifford added, although only in the context of the one great untouchable: the one-party system.

Author Diane Wei Liang, who spoke in Hong Kong some time ago, broadly concurred: China, she said, had changed noticeably in this area every time she went back, and was very different from the country where she had stood on a tank during the Tiananmen Square uprising. Jung Chang’s books (including the epic Wild Swans) are still banned in China, but the author herself can travel and speak freely in the country.

Recently, editors who pushed too many buttons with their articles have been fired, according to the Far Eastern Economic Review, but not imprisoned – more in line with the "gentle defenestration" practised by Western media outlets. (In an ironic twist not mentioned in the FEER article, one editor was fired when a young staffer allowed mothers of Tiananmen victims to place a full-page advertisement in his newspaper on the uprising’s anniversary last year. How did it get through? The young staffer had never heard of it, and therefore didn’t know that it was a banned subject.)

In all, China continues to be some way behind other countries, but is making progress (again, however, we must acknowledge the other set of rules for freedom of speech, religion and assembly in Tibet). And sometimes it has no choice – trying to close down wikileaks, for example, only resulted in people using mirrors to get to the site.

Can we say the same about progress in our own country and our older allies? Unfortunately not. The current world leader in freedom-regression is the US, with a litany of abuses so broad it is difficult to keep track. First, a few prominent examples:

Nobody apprehended by US authorities has an automatic right of habeas corpus, one of the foundations of Western law. There is illegal (retrospectively it may become legal, but would still be warrantless) domestic spying on all forms of communication, and foreign spying on certain forms, in collusion with large communication companies. People can be subjected to "extraordinary renditions" and torture (most often, but not exclusively, non-US citizens), and evidence in their "trials" deemed not particularly important. US citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security, will soon need a national ‘Real ID’ to enter airports, and will also need to be approved for any air travel by the Department weeks in advance of each trip (as is the case in North Korea).

The conspiracy mill has also been working overtime on the lesser known developments such as NSPD-51, which continues the vaguely defined "national emergency" language of other executive (that is, unlegislated) directives. There’s also Kellogg, Brown and Root’s detention camps, of which Daniel Ellsberg said, "Almost certainly this is preparation for a roundup after the next 9/11 for Mid-Easterners, Muslims and possibly dissenters … They’ve already done this on a smaller scale, with the ‘special registration’ detentions of immigrant men from Muslim countries, and with Guantanamo".

Speaking of dissenters, the best way to find them could be the dob-in-an-enemy ‘Extremist Beliefs Commission’, which will travel the country looking for people with radical views. Worried about the infrastructure in a post-scarcity society? No problem – private InfraGard agents can shoot anyone trying to access needed infrastructure in the event of, yes, a "national emergency".

The list goes on. Across the Atlantic, Tony Blair’s Britain became a "surveillance society" – the most watched in the world. It boasts an "out of control stealth database" of citizens’ DNA, has secret inquests and its own modern ‘Star Chamber’, where cases can be discussed without pesky prying eyes. No change yet under Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministership.

In Australia, readers will be familiar with the Howard Government’s anti-terror legislation (I know of a Middle Eastern man who was dobbed in, whose house was searched without his consent and who is now on the watchlist after a verbal spat about trolley placement in a supermarket car park). For another, is the Northern Territory Intervention the tip of the iceberg? Unlike Howard’s industrial relations laws, these ones don’t seem to be candidates for rollback. It’s not as long a list as that of the US, but then we had fewer rights to begin with.

Questioning these would normally be the job of a vigilant media; we, however, seem to have our own version of a ‘one-party system’, in which the system itself cannot be questioned (as there is no alternative), and any shortcomings of the system are regrettably necessary and unavoidable. Something similar happened in another country not too long ago.

But why would one country be opening up, however slowly, while others are closing? Again, this is related to the changing dynamic of global power. Historically, rises and falls among the most powerful countries led to wars – usually large coalition wars. Today, they generally do not; they lead to small-scale resource wars (often proxy wars) and large-scale economic and diplomatic conflict.

In this case particularly, the real causes are twofold: first, the Anglophone countries have for some time been losing their preeminent position in the world. Of course, they don’t want this to happen and their attempt to prevent it is a war-based strategy straight out of imperial days, this time led by the US. This was a gamble that is not succeeding. And being an empire, as Chalmers Johnson and others old and new have observed, calls sooner or later for militarism and secrecy that are inimical to democracy.

Second, the main reason aside from war for countries becoming closed and clamping down on freedoms is foreign interference (or the fear thereof). The 20th century saw sundry examples of this – for one, Russia’s putative allies in the First World War launched a brutal and extended invasion of that country to strangle the communist revolution at birth. Interestingly, many people still have never heard of this campaign, but it underpinned the Soviet Union’s attitudes to both the West and to internal dissent throughout its lifespan. China was long a weakened victim of foreign interference, but as it grows stronger and charts its own course it can afford to both loosen up at home and turn the tables internationally.

In the near future, these trends seem set to continue. As long as China does not implode (the real threat here is dissatisfaction on the part of those ‘left behind’, as Gifford observed), and as long as the Anglophone countries are hitched to their doomed imperial strategy, the respective paths of freedom will converge – and, maybe, cross. Stranger things have happened.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.