Monday, April 29, 2013

China's Age Old Obsession with Secrecy

While reading R. Po-chia Hsia's biography of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, A Jesuit In The Forbidden City, there was one brief passage that was of particular interest to me because it illustrates a certain characteristic of China's government that is still of tremendous relevance in the present day.

In his early years in China in the late 16th century, Matteo Ricci served with another Jesuit missionary named Michele Ruggieri.  One of the ways the Jesuits tried to impress and curry favor with their Chinese hosts was to show off their superior knowledge of astronomy and cartography.  These included making astronomical predictions and providing the most up to date and accurate maps of the then known world.

Hsia writes of an incident that Ruggieri describes between Ricci and a Mandarin official.

"[O]nce Ricci told their patron Wang Pan the exact latitude and longitude of his hometown and was surprised to find that Wang 'was very angry and reprehended [Ricci] for knowing such things'.  Missionaries must not be seen to know or describe their country or provinces, Ruggieri concluded, as they would otherwise be suspected of harboring evil intentions of conquest."

In recent years, foreigners in China are finding themselves ruffling the feathers of the Chinese government over the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment.

An article from Nature in 2008 summarizes the dilemma:

Foreign researchers working in China are falling foul of laws restricting environmental monitoring and use of Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment. Geologists, botanists, environmental scientists and meteorologists have been affected. Even those who believed that they were within the law and were collaborating with Chinese researchers have lost data, been detained and had equipment confiscated.

One of the most recent and prominent cases of foreigners running afoul of these restrictions is Coca-Cola.

The beverage giant's sin in the eyes of the Chinese government was that "trucks for some of its bottling plants use location technology that is widely available commercially in China to improve the efficiency of deliveries."

A more serious case involves a Chinese-American geologist named Xue Feng.  Several years ago, Feng was sentenced to eight years in prison for "violating the country’s vague state secrets laws after he obtained an oil industry database for his employer, IHS Energy, a consulting company in Colorado."

In a letter to President Barack Obama, David Rowley, a geologist and professor of geology under whom Feng served as a graduate student, wrote:

This was not a nefarious deal, but a very public one in which Xue Feng was simply a corporate representative acting on IHS’s behalf. He had done this many times before. What is most troubling is that it raises concern for all of us who work or do research in China and may be given books or documents that exist in the public domain but are deemed "state secrets" after the fact. What source can assure us that we are within the law? How can anyone be sure that the information they have is "legal"? Having worked in China for 26 years and researched the geology, including the petroleum geology of China, I have to admit I am no longer certain and far from confident that I too will not be detained, incarcerated, and found guilty of violating states secrets for possession of geologic information that I bought at the bookstore.
Feng has also alleged that his captors tortured him, including burning his arms with lit cigarettes.

It has been over a century since China was ruled by emperors, but one thing that seems to have survived since at least as early as the Ming Dynasty is the ruling government's paranoia with regard to outsiders' knowledge of China.


Anonymous said...

Yeah. Interesting.

Under the U.S. military code, soldiers who detect crimes being committed by the army are supposed to report it, and the entire issue is supposed to be handled with total transparency.

Bradley Manning found out about a bunch of war crimes. He tried repeatedly to report them to superiors, who actively ignored him. So he blew the whistle to try to stop them. Obama has been insanely active in trying to get the guy convicted, despite even making it a campaign promise to protect whistleblowers. This is, of course, entirely in line with Obama's dramatic ramping up of government secrecy and elimination of transparency.

So, what was that about China? I couldn't hear you over the hypocrisy.

Infidel753 said...

The quasi-fascist nature of their present government doesn't help, either. The obsession with controlling the flow of information will handicap the country's progress in an era where free flow of information is increasingly critical. The examples you give of interference in ordinary business activities show that they still don't have a clue how a modern economy operates.

Tommykey said...

Totally agree Infidel.

@ Anonymous. I was inspired to write this post because I read the passage from the book about Matteo Ricco around the same time I read an article about foreigners trying to do research in China being harrassed by the Chinese government over the use of GPS devices.

I agree that the treatment of Bradley Manning is deplorable, but it is a topic that deserves its own post and it is rather ridiculous to say that I can't write a post about the historical parallels between what the Jesuits encountered in China several centuries ago with what foreigners encounter today.