Saturday, August 9, 2008

Phone cards and human rights

Emily's sister here, about mid-way through my first trip to China. Needless to say, there is a lot to take in in a city of about 20 million. We've been pretty busy, visiting local sites, sampling Shanghainese food and elbowing through rush-hour subway crowds. Tonight we had some down time so, I thought I would catch-up on some news via my usual online sources.

Glancing through my email news alerts, I noticed the Huffington Post had an article about members of the US press being detained when they landed in Beijing with President Bush a few days ago. Intrigued, I tried to click through to the article, but instead, got an error message.

Now it's not that I was all that surprised I couldn't access the article, (Emily has actually written about the Chinese government's internet censorship in the past) but because I work in the human rights field, and am also a bit of an on-line news junkie, this censorship first-hand really strikes a nerve. Earlier today, (via a translator, otherwise known as my bilingual Mandarin-English brother-in-law) an older Chinese man selling phone cards on a streetcorner told us about being dislocated from his spot by local police because he was not an authorized dealer. "You should know since you're foreigners," he said. "There are no human rights in China."

Now Chinese zoning regulations aside (which I know nothing about), this elderly, working class Chinese man's discourse about human rights struck me. Did he use the term because he recognized that we were clearly Western foreigners and thought it would resonate with us? Or did he genuinely view his inability to pursue his livelihood thanks to the local police, as infringing on his economic, and therefore human rights?

This past week in China has sparked more than a few musings on democracy, human rights, nationalism, development theory, and lots of other fun "isms" but we'll save those for another time.


chineselives said...

The phone card seller's words is not trustable, because he merely cried for himself. And he broke regulations first by sell without permission.

Lilia said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm not actually questioning the legality of what he was doing,; instead, I'm interested in the language he used. The rhetoric of human rights in our conversation was what I found to be noteworthy.