Nick Kristof’s latest NYT Op-Ed is very exciting. He breathlessly concludes: “it's the Chinese leadership itself that is digging the Communist Party's grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband.”
In the very long run, yes. In the short run, the situation is much more complicated.
Kristof must actually realize this, not only because he has spent a lot of time reporting from China. Check out this op-ed he wrote about rising Chinese nationalism, especially on the internet. The point is, democracy isn’t the only thing that can sprout and grow on the internet. So can intolerance, xenophobia and belligerence.
And those qualities – which are permitted and even encouraged by the government to fester in Chinese cyberspace – may help the Chinese Communist Party stay in power. Last fall I wrote a long rant in response to cyber-utopians (whose ranks Kristof appears to have joined) and connectivity idealists like Thomas Barnett (of The Pentagon’s New Map fame) in which I warned:
- 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.
- Don't expect the Chinese blogosphere to bring down the Chinese Communist Party any time soon.
In that same rant I explained why. The reasons include the fact that China has the world’s most sophisticated filtering, monitoring, and censorship regime. This filtering enables the Chinese authorities to skew Chinese internet users’ view of the world, encouraging rabid anti-foreign nationalism, which makes people inclined to rally behind the flag and Party, overlooking its massive human rights shortcomings in the face of perceived foreign outrages, which get a lot more bandwith in the Chinese part of cyberspace.
But don’t take a lone blogger’s word for it. I just came back from a 2–day
conference on the Internet in China. What did I learn? Sure, I learned how the internet and blogs are expanding the possibilities for citizen
discourse and even dissent. But I also learned how the Chinese government is aggressively seeking – and finding –
ways to use the internet to boost not only its control over far-flung provinces. It's also using the internet to boost its public credibility by creating low-risk cyber-interactivity (as opposed to physical interaction) with "the masses," thus giving people the feeling that the government is more responsive to their concerns - whether or not it really is. The
Chinese Communist Party will use everything in its own considerable cyber-arsenal to
keep itself alive. Will it ultimately succeed? Probably not in the long run. But in the short run, yes.
My next post will be a more detailed summary of what I learned at the conference, which should help explain why the internet isn't going to foster another Chinese revolution overnight.