Tiananmen Square student protest 1989.jpg

Tiananmen Square student protest, 1989

"I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?  I will be harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.  On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation.  NO! no! Tell a man who's house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; - but, urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.  I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - AND I WILL BE HEARD."
-William Lloyd Garrison on the Abolition of Slavery

This week America celebrates Freedom of Speech Week (Oct. 22-28, 2012), which got me thinking: What does free speech really mean in countries that are still grappling with the notion?

Ergo, I and my family vacationed in China this summer.  Beginning our sightseeing tour in Beijing, I was curious to view Tiananmen Square, as any living, breathing American who remembered the protests and massacre of 1989, would.

Tiananmen Square is a large, city square in the center of Beijing named after the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) located to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City.  Leading the way with a flourish, our tour guide, a young woman in her 30's, named Linda, began extolling the features of the historic site. 

"This is the place where the protests took place, right?" I queried innocently.

My question was met with stony silence.  Linda's pleasant face was creased with worry.

"This is where the students got killed?" I tried again, in the mistaken belief that Linda hadn't heard me the first time.

This time I couldn't disavow the frightened look tugging at her eyes.  Her face clammed up and she totally ignored me.

"Time to move on to The Forbidden City," she barked rapidly, shepherding my charges quickly away from the Square.

In Shanghai, the most populous city in the world and an undisputed financial hub of the modern world, I couldn't help but notice the surveillance cameras mounted on the top of every skyscraper, hotel, park, residential building and other popular gathering spot.  According to a story in the Toronto based newspaper, The Globe and Mail, Shanghai has an estimated 200,000 spy cameras installed and anotehr 200,000 are on the way within the next five years.

"Big Brother is always watching you, ehhh?" I asked Linda.

She smiled politely at me in response, but stoically avoided my question.

Rebuffed again, I slumped back in my car seat as I pondered Salman Rushdie's words:
"What is freedom of expression?  Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."