How do we explain a situation in which a country is, on the one hand, suffocating from toxic air pollution, toxic soil, drinking water laced with poisonous chemicals and food that is adulterated, while on the other hand is actively attempting to hide the government findings that might expose the problem and lead to a remedy?
Of course, such contradictions are not unknown in the world at-large, especially where governments are involved. But in contemplating China, we run into a somewhat unique situation. As Justice Louis Brandeis famously noted, “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.” In China we have a country with a long history of both Confucianism and then Marxism-Leninism, two political traditions whose predominant ideologies were consecrated not to “sunlight,” but to re-enforcing the infallibility and authority of the state and its leaders. In both instances the institutions of education and media, such as they were, were viewed not as independent actors whose goals were to uncover truth, but rather handmaidens of the state and adjuncts to state power.
Thus, what we are witnessing today when China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection refuses to grant a lawyer’s request for government-generated information on the grounds that these are “state secrets” is an expression of one part of China’s now deeply divided self which is in contention with the another. These two contradictory aspects of Chinese society-in-the-process-of-self-reinvention might be described as the “old” vs “the new”: as the retrograde impulse never to release any information that makes the state look bad colliding with the new impulse that was encouraged by Deng Xiaoping with his annunciation of the need “to seek truth from facts” which has been updated by the more recent notion of “scientific development.”
The truth is that both China’s ideological framework and its political system are locked in a state of eternal transition (and tension), making the country perhaps the least “resolved” nation of consequence on the planet today. While every nation must embrace myriad contradictions, China’s lack of foundational beliefs, or of even a confirmed political system, when coupled with its eternal state of reform, makes it very vulnerable to this kind of mind-boggling contrariness. But, what it bespeaks is of a country and society in a very profound, long-term state of destabilizing transition, one that cannot really be understood unless one is able to maintain equal and opposite forces as happening simultaneously in one’s head at the same time.
Under such a circumstance, it is hardly surprising that the release of potentially embarrassing environmental information that protects people’s health and saves people’s lives, which has become the official rule-of-the road in China on the one hand, still collides with the old abiding and very retrograde, impulse to control and censor information that risks making the state and Party look bad.