HuYaobang.jpg
You probably don't know of this man. His life and death are one small part of the recent scuffle between Google and the Beijing government.

It was the death of Hu Yaobang in April 15 1989—disgraced and exiled from power due to his forceful arguments for Tibetan autonomy, intellectual freedoms, engagement with the West and liberalization of the economy away from party cronies—that sparked the gathering of students and Chinese citizens in Tiananmen square. On June 3rd and 4th 1989—under the guise of visiting Western reporters—Li Peng (the quintessential crony boss of the contemporary chinese communist party) ordered the clearing of the square by force. Premiere Zhao Ziyang—the architect of the economic reforms that catapulted China into its present successes, a genuine genius of economic development—was forced out of office for his support of the demonstrators; after his removal from office, he spent fifteen years under house arrest, dying at home unacknowledged in 2005.

The fight between Google and China, at one level, is about not telling this story. The current government wants to ignore the existence of Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, wants to bury the duplicity and corruption of Li Peng—and expects the rest of the world to help it in its efforts. Of all the criticisms of Google, the notion that allowing access to this history to be found and read in China is somehow an imperial enforcement of Western beliefs and values in China seems particularly twisted. This is a Chinese story, of a nation trying to reinvent and rebuild itself after a truly vile era of Western (and Japanese) subjugation. The ideas and actions of Ziyang and Yaobang are a part of the successes and failures of the present. Most Westerners could give two shits about these scholars and their accomplishments—even if doing so is critical for understanding the changes our present world is undergoing.

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For all our country's big talk about freedom and liberty, it's easy to forget why the first amendment exists—for a deeply practical reason. It's hard enough for any society to see situations clearly and honestly enough to acknowledge and redress mistakes and missteps. The requisite first step is to grant everyone the inalienable right to think, say and write whatever they damn well please; even with it, we fall into deep enough pits of ignorance. (One almost wishes to tell Li Peng himself, it would be fine if Google returned results for 'June 4th 1989' in China; with sufficient simple-minded nationalist froth, people can be convinced of virtually anything.)

Putting it another way, I'll borrow from Philip K Dick: Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. Uncensored access to information is a part of seeing reality for what it is, before the facts are ugly enough to make their presence known—wanted or not.