Western Fantasies vs. Reality

(Excerpted from Chapter 3: Networked Authoritarianism, pp. 47-50 of the paperback edition.)

When the United States first began to engage China politically and economically in 1979, many Washington policy makers assumed that capitalism would inevitably bring democratization. Reality has played out differently. Capitalist investors are actually helping the Chinese Communist Party strengthen and refine a gilded cage for China’s Internet users. This cage is made as large and exciting as possible for the Chinese people, plying them with ever more digital conveniences, delights, comforts—and even outlets for political debate, giving people the sense that they are much more free than ever before, as long as they do not cross certain lines.

The government cannot afford to sever links between the domestic Chinese Internet and the international Internet without disrupting the international business, trade, and finance upon which its economy now depends. Thanks in part to copious foreign investment, however, the domestic Internet has grown robust and useful enough for the majority of Chinese Internet users that the government has been able to restrict access to the global Internet without widespread public outcry. In early 2011, government network engineers gave the “great firewall” a major upgrade, blocking some of the Internet protocols used to establish se- cure and encrypted connections and making it much more difficult than ever for people to use virtual private network services to circumvent censorship and evade surveillance. Access to Gmail and a number of other popular international services was not fully blocked but was slowed down to make the sites more difficult to access without delays and connection errors. University and corporate networks suffered disruptions as “punishment” when individual users tried to use circumvention tools to access blocked websites. In May 2011, Hong Kong–based ac- tivist Oiwan Lam collected a number of warning notices from corporate and university IT departments and posted them on the Global Voices advocacy site. A typical example was this one issued by the Chinese Academy of Sciences:

Our faculty’s access to overseas websites have been disrupted in the past few days. Upon investigation, the reason is because some users have used circumvention tools to get access to illegal con- tent, hence the public security bureau has black-listed our faculty’s IP. Here I remind everyone to follow the rule when using Internet, don’t use illegal means to get access to illegal information!

Such measures are an extension of quiet measures implemented several years before on some university campuses. Many of China’s top universities, including Peking University and Tsinghua University, provide free broadband to students in their dormitories. But there is a catch: the service is free only for domestic websites and a select set of “white-listed” overseas websites. To access any other websites or services from outside of China, students are charged according to how many megabites they upload or download. Most students, being on tight budgets, see very little of the global Internet.

Fortunately for the government, there are plenty of websites and services on the Chinese Internet to keep people occupied, without ever needing to access sites and services based overseas. Baidu helps them locate all the content on the Chinese-language Internet that their government permits. Social networking platforms RenRen and Kaixin-wang substitute for Facebook. People can blog on platforms run by Chinese companies like Sohu and Sina and “tweet” on Weibo. QQ, run by the company Tencent, offers instant-messaging, gaming, and all kinds of interactive services that work seamlessly across both PCs and mobile phones.

Chinese Internet company executives occasionally complain about being forced to censor and track users, but insidiously, their business is too profitable to resist. They are too deeply invested and complicit, as are their international investors. According to the Boston Consulting Group, China’s e-commerce market is expected to soon become the world’s largest, quadrupling from $71 billion in 2010 to a projected $305 billion in 2015. The amount of money raised by Chinese venture funds—much of it for Internet start-ups—grew from almost $4 billion in 2006 to more than $11 billion in 2010. China’s three largest Internet companies, Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba, are all listed on overseas stock markets. So are several other major Internet brands including RenRen, a social networking platform similar to Facebook, which raised $743 million in its IPO on NASDAQ in early May 2011.

The more successful and popular these companies become, the less incentive Chinese Internet users will have to access blocked foreign services like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube—beyond a small politically motivated cohort, who are always a small minority of any country’s population. It will also become easier to restrict general access to the inter- national Internet without a widespread public outcry.The restriction in turn boosts the traffic and advertising revenue for Chinese Internet companies, making them all the more attractive to foreign investors.

When commercial Internet service first became available in China in 1995, Western policy makers and journalists—myself included—made very different assumptions about how the Internet would change China. In explaining the de-linkage between human rights standards and China’s “most-favored nation” trading status in 1994, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher reinforced this assumption when he declared, “Economic development depends upon the free flow of information; computers are the new vehicles of political expression. The software of freedom will, ultimately, prevail over the hardware of repression.” Washington policy makers and the US business community failed to anticipate the extent to which the Chinese government could compel domestic and foreign companies to rewrite the software and rewire the hardware to the Chinese Communist Party’s specifications.

The Chinese Communist Party has created a system that keeps itself in power while engaging its citizens and helping them succeed economically. The private sector has a stake in maintaining and reinforcing this system with the enthusiastic support of American investors who also profit from its existence. Unless and until a critical mass of Chinese Internet users decide that the status quo is unacceptable and demand access to alternatives beyond their “gilded cage,” and unless Chinese entrepreneurs and CEOs decide that it is in their long-term interest to help build a different kind of future, more than likely the Internet’s pervasive use in China will actually help prolong the Communist Party’s rule of China rather than hasten its demise.The implications of this reality extend well beyond China.

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