The English-language blogosphere has been awash with optimism about the rise of Chinese blogs as an alternative form of citizens' media, thanks to two excellent articles, "The 'blog' Revolution Sweeps Across China," by Xiao Qiang of China Digital News, and Dan Gillmor's China Bloggers Emerge, But Not Too Loudly. Their timing couldn't be better from my perspective, since I just so happen to be putting together a conference presentation about blogs, online discourse, and internet censorship in China.
As a journalist who spent 9 years in China (1992-2001), and who was there for the birth of China's Internet Age, here is my take on the situation:
Yes, blogs are enabling ordinary Chinese to discuss ideas and inform each other about events inside and outside China in ways that weren't possible before - and as Xiao points out, blogs are harder than chatrooms to police. This will make a difference politically. Blogs and chatroom conversations are already pushing greater media openness and influencing mainstream news reporting. SMS text messaging outed the SARS story.
BUT, before anybody gets too overly excited about the impending democratic revolution...
- Don't expect the Chinese blogosphere to bring down the Chinese Communist Party any time soon. The Great Chinese Firewall and China's internet police will see to that - and they have plenty of help from major U.S. tech companies, including Cisco. Shame on them. My Berkman Center colleagues have done some excellent research on China's sophisticated system of internet filtering in conjunction with the Open Net Initiative. Most recently, China has been blocking access to the English-language Google News, but Google censors itself in Chinese anyway. Shame on them too.
- Don't assume that the expansion of freedom of speech in Chinese cyberspace will necessarily strengthen international peace and brotherly love between China and other countries - the opposite is also possible. In fact, the bulk of voices in Chinese cyberspace today are more anti-American, more anti-Japanese, and more inclined to go to war against Taiwan than the Chinese government is. This is made more acute by the skewed mix of information Chinese internet-users are exposed to thanks to the Great Chinese Firewall - and it's also why U.S. corporate assistance in building that firewall is especially heinous. But there are other factors - like good old-fashioned Chinese nationalism - at work as well.
Read on for more details if you're interested...
I won't repeat the excellent descriptions by Xiao and Dan of how Chinese bloggers censor themselves in order to avoid winding up in jail - or getting their blog shut down, which is bad enough. I won't repeat Xiao's description of all the things the Chinese authorities are doing to filter information coming in from outside, and to monitor what Chinese citizens are doing and saying on the web.
Despite all this, I also agree with Xiao and Dan that blogs have quietly managed to expand the range of online discourse in China. One example of Chinese blogger-journalism that has not been censored is "24 hours online", which posted a first-hand account - complete with graphic, bloody photos - of a murder the blogger happened to witness on a Beijing street. He describes calling the Chinese emergency hotline, the nonplussed reaction by the person who answered, and so forth. In the comments section of his post, there is a long discussion about how this blog report was better than the Beijing media's report of the incident, and about how Chinese police don't take this kind of murder very seriously...and what this means about the government's attitude towards its citizens, etc.. In my casual surfing of Chinese blogs I've found several other examples of bloggers complaining about actions or behavior of local government officials. It seems that this is ok most of the time as long as you're not seeking to overthrow the central government and party. This would not be ok in local city or provincial newspapers, magazines, and radio, however. So freedom of speech is indeed expanding in Chinese cyberspace, thanks to blogs.
That said, the government's aggressive filtering, monitoring and policing produces a very skewed information environment. Chinese have no problems accessing stories like this one (in the Chinese-language version) about a Chinese woman who was mistakenly beaten by U.S. immigration police, complete with graphic pictures of her bruised and puffy face. Chinese web-surfers have easy access to Al Jazeera and photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. But unless they are determined and skilled in the use of proxy servers, and are willing to risk being caught, they will not see pictures like this - pictures of their own countrymen, victims of Chinese police torture.
The result is that while Chinese people have to be careful about what they say and read online about their own government's behavior, they can let 'er rip to their hearts' content when it comes to complaining about the U.S., or Japan, or about what should be done if Taiwan were to have the audacity to declare itself an independent country.
At an official governmental level, U.S.-China relations are better now than they've been since the 1980's at least. Colin Powell recently said they're the best in 30 years. However Chinese public opinion of the U.S. has been on the steady decline since the mid-1990's. This essay by Ben Elgin, a recent American resident of Beijing, describes the situation very well. An excerpt:
Most Americans traveling to China will probably continue to be unaware...of how passionately much of the Chinese public has come to dislike the United States. ...it has become increasingly common to have to defend U.S. policies and even cultural norms to colleagues, classmates and cab drivers. Good luck to those who end up in these situations. Even Americans fiercely opposed to the Bush administration may be surprised to find themselves feeling defensive.
When I covered the spyplane incident in April 2001, it was clear to me that if the majority of people posting in China's internet chatrooms had their way, the crewmembers of the U.S. P-3 surveillance plane that made an emergency landing on Hainan island after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet would still be in China today - tried, sentenced, and jailed.
The Chinese government expressed outrage at the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has been generally supportive of the U.S. war on terror. But guess what? After the planes hit the World Trade Center, Chinese cyberspace was cheering. In early 2002 the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof described the situation this way:
I spent a couple of days at Beijing University talking freely to the nation's best and brightest. This in itself, along with the relatively free debate in Internet chat rooms, is a sign of real political progress in China.
When I lived here in the late 1980's and early 1990's, there was no outlet like the Internet to express one's views, and I could talk to university students only after escaping the goons who routinely tailed me. This time I had no tails to shake.
Yet what I found heartbreaking is that this new openness and political maturity in China is accompanied by a dangerous sign of political immaturity: this booming, aggrieved, chip-on-the-shoulder nationalism among many ordinary people, much more so than even a decade ago.
Why is this a risk? Think of Japan, where nationalism combined with an economic boom to help lead to the Asian half of World War II. Or of Germany, where a similar combination helped cause World War I. Or even — this is an example Americans tend not to recall — the way nationalism and new-found strength in the United States led Washington to provoke the Spanish-American War.
Elsewhere in the world, we were far too late in recognizing the way movements in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan arose to preach intolerance and hatred. In China it is still early enough to reshape this nationalist tide.
Many young Chinese agree that they're nationalistic, but they disagree with Kristof that their patriotism and growing distrust of the U.S. is unjustified or dangerous. From their perspective, the U.S. - not China - is to blame for this "nationalist tide." To get a sense of a point of view that I've found to be quite common among educated young Chinese - even those with Western educations - read this essay by a Chinese journalism student now in Canada. He was in the U.S. on 9/11 and had this reaction to the way in which Americans responded to the crisis: "the concepts of good and evil were grossly simplified, with the "good" being U.S. citizens and those who supported them, while everyone else was "evil." I had to ask myself, why?"
What is my point? I'm not blaming the internet for China's growing nationalism or anti-Americanism. I'm not saying that chatrooms, SMS messaging and blogs aren't expanding the sphere of free speech in China - they are, albeit slowly and quietly, and they will continue to do so. But while connectivity may bring about more freedoms of speech, it will not magically bring about peace and understanding between Chinese and Americans, and it will not make conflict less likely -- certainly not on its own. The gap between the way ordinary Chinese and ordinary Americans view the world can only be bridged by concerted human efforts, both online and offline.
These efforts might include several initiatives:
- An online translated forum through which ordinary Chinese and ordinary Americans can talk to one another - or read and respond to each others' blogs and chatroom posts. Most Americans have no idea what ordinary Chinese people think of them and why.
- Legislation like the Global Internet Freedom Act (but without the glaring loophole), which would promote and fund the development of technologies to circumvent internet filtering & blocking.
- AND/OR promotion and funding of such technologies by the private and non-profit sectors.
- Political and economic pressure against corporations like Cisco who sell technology to the Chinese public security bureau, with full knowledge of how it will be used. What they're doing is no less reprehensible than companies selling ballistic missile components as far as the U.S.'s long-term national security is concerned.
As Tim Oren at Winds of Change recently put it, We Are All Ambassadors Now. If we really want to prevent any future possibility of war between the U.S. and China, we are probably ill-advised to sit around waiting for our diplomats and national leaders to take care of things for us.