"If You're Not Monitoring People, They Can Say Whatever They Want."

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
June 10 2013 12:33 PM

"If You're Not Monitoring People, They Can Say Whatever They Want."

Like I was saying, the People's Republic of China is a strange place to be when a spying scandal breaks out stateside. On Friday, as Americans started talking about the NSA revelations, I was traveling around Shanghai with a friend who spoke Mandarin more or less fluently. I suggested that it would be fun to get the occasional man-on-the-street spin on what the NSA was doing.

"Oh, I'm sure that'll come up," said my friend.

He was being sarcastic. Any ambitions of writing a "China street" piece to make Tom Friedman proud were dashed by the vast majority of people not really caring about the story. Even the English-language official paper, China Daily, soft-pedaled the story, printing an AFP take near the back of the news pages.


The Chinese state holds a whip hand when it comes to foreign journalists poking around the country. To get in I had to convince a consulate that I wasn't reporting on China, despite my day job. And I wasn't; I was just curious what the Chinese thought of an American story. (Hence the lack of names in this post.) The Chinese expect a certain level of scrutiny of their communications and media consumption. American social media like Twitter and Facebook are blocked. You can only sign up for Weibo, China's version of Twitter with nearly 400 million users, after providing your real name and contact info. And the government can block search terms, as people noticed when the anniversary of a certain 1989 public demonstration came last week.

So the few people I encountered with opinions of the NSA story gave it a shrug. One engineer I met at a restaurant sounded surprised that Americans would be surprised. "We're used to scrutiny here," he said. "This is a big country, and people want to happy life in a country that's stable."

How did censorship and monitoring make that work? "If you're not monitoring people, they can say whatever they want. They can spread misinformation." I regaled him with facts about the conspiracies millions of Americans believe, about Barack Obama's birthplace or the Kennedy assassination, and I felt an unfamiliar sensation—a sort of pride in how Americans can say anything online, anything that embarrasses them, and not think about who's reading.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Dear Prudence
Oct. 21 2014 9:18 AM Oh, Boy Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister dresses her 4-year-old son in pink tutus.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:25 AM The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip
Oct. 21 2014 8:38 AM An Implanted Wearable Gadget Isn’t as Crazy as You’d Think Products like New Deal Design’s UnderSkin may be the future.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.