|http://www.sina.com.cn 2003/07/09 10:12 北京青年报|
Let him wear the shirt!
I recently read, in the pages of this newspaper, about a little scandal over the message on a T-shirt worn by a foreigner in Nanjing. According to the article, the foreigner's shirt carried a message entitled "Ten Warnings to Chinese" regarding the treatment of foreigners. It included admonitions against staring at foreigners, charging foreigners higher prices than Chinese and asking about foreigners' material circumstances (including income), and noted that barring foreigners from staying in cheap hotels is unfair. It also included admonitions against discussing immigration, study abroad and "changing money" and against expressing surprise that foreigners know how to use chopsticks. Evidently two Chinese men took offense at the content of the shirt, confronted the foreigner, demanded that he take off his shirt (which he did not) and ultimately extracted an apology from the man after the group had gone to a police station to discuss the matter. The foreign man "acknowledged his mistake" and pledged not to wear the shirt again.
I noted with great interest the Beijing Youth Daily's position on the matter: the foreigner's shirt made some fair points and the fact that these points were coming from a foreigner in no way detracted from the legitimacy of the constructive criticism. It was not the foreigner who made the mistake, the newspaper reasoned, but the people who couldn't bear a little well-founded criticism. I have a lot of respect for theBeijingYouthDaily for taking that thoughtful and mature position. At the same time, however, I think there are a couple of other points to make.
While I certainly understand the frustration behind many of the shirt's points, I myself found the tone of the T-shirt's message offensive and can see why some Chinese took umbrage. What's more, some of the ten points are outdated. For example, China has made great strides in recent years in eliminating the highly discriminatory dual-pricing system that forced foreigners to pay more than Chinese for goods and services. And last month, Beijing lifted its long-standing policy of restricting foreigners to certain (always pricier) hotels. (I'm not sure if Nanjing has taken this very enlightened step yet. If it hasn't, it should.) As for "changing money," this hasn't been a major issue, as far as I'm aware, since the era of foreign exchange certificates before 1994.The T-shirt's message, in short, is about as timely as it is tasteful.In my opinion, the Chinese who no doubt produced and sold the shirt to this foreigner should "advance with the times" and produce goods that are more current and less offensive.
There is no question in my mind that the foreigner who wore this shirt exercised poor judgment. However, the two Chinese men who confronted him and reportedly demanded that he remove the shirt -- clearly a threatening gesture -- committed the far more serious offense. Not liking what they saw on the foreigner's T-shirt, they attempted to restrict his expression in a way that went well beyond Chinese law. Taking offense at someone's comments, behavior or clothing -- especially when the comments, behavior and clothing are not illegal -- does not give a person license to intimidate or threaten that individual. People have the right to express themselves within the law and that includes the right to express views and ideas that some may find offensive. As an American statesman once said, "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll fight to the death to defend your right to say it."
The whole point of free speech, which is guaranteed in China's constitution, is that the law, and only the law, should set the parameters for acceptable expression. After all, if not the law, then who gets to decide what can and can't be said? The two men who took such offense at the foreigner's T-shirt are certainly entitled to their opinion. They are entitled to be angry. They are entitled to tell the foreigner what they think. They are entitled to write articles in newspapers expressing their views. But if, as reported, they angrily demanded that the individual take off his shirt, they clearly crossed the line into intimidation. That's unacceptable. I note that many Chinese have expressed disappointment with the actions of the two Chinese men. Indeed, over half the Chinese polled informally by Sina.com acknowledged that four of the ten "warnings" actually had merit!
Though the Beijing Youth Daily may have been over-generous in its assessment of the constructive nature of the T-shirt's admonitions, I think it came to precisely the right conclusion in this matter. Being able to tolerate the existence of ideas with which one may not agree, whatever the nationality of the person expressing them, is an attribute not of weakness, but of wisdom. Tolerance of differing views is a hallmark of a mature society.
NOTE: This article reflects the personal view of the author.
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