Nov. 9 (Bloomberg) -- This week’s meeting in Beijing of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which will inaugurate a new slate of leaders, has not exactly brought a golden dawn of free expression. In addition to cracking down on all forms of media, China’s creatively paranoid security forces are on the lookout for threats such as taxi passengers carrying pingpong balls that they might slip through windows to deliver subversive messages.
Such off-the-wall measures, however, usefully highlight one of the central challenges that will confront Xi Jinping, the princeling pegged to be China’s next president, and his new colleagues on the elite Politburo Standing Committee: how to maintain the flow of information vital to economic growth and public wellbeing in China without undermining the party’s legitimacy and primacy.
An explosion in Chinese Internet use and the rise of social media have made it harder for the outgoing duo of Party Secretary and President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to maintain a “harmonious” society, to use one of Hu’s favorite adjectives. The number of Internet users has jumped to 538 million from 20 million in 2001; China also has about 274 million microblog accounts. To keep tabs on them and block information it doesn’t like, China’s government has built a sophisticated regime of technological filters and human minders. Access to foreign websites is routed through only a few entry/exit points.
Within China itself, layers of formal and informal arrangements seek to create a well-tended simulacrum of the Web’s wide-open spaces. At Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging site, users are given 80 points, which can be deducted for various anti-social offenses; hundreds of its employees are engaged 24/7 in deleting posts or rendering them invisible to followers, closing accounts, or doctoring search results. Under Hu and Wen, China has also insinuated more censors and moles into newsrooms and management offices of traditional media.
These and other repressive measures have raised hackles (and lowered press freedom rankings) without tamping down popular discontent over corruption, pollution and other hot-button issues. The number of protests and social disturbances has grown by some estimates to about 500 per day, up almost fourfold from a decade ago. To their credit, in areas such as pollution and food safety, Chinese authorities recognize that social media can help them do their jobs by exposing problems and focusing public ire. China has also begun to use the Web to promote greater transparency about government decision-making, not least for foreign consumption.
Still, those who violate Beijing’s taboos on topics of public discussion or journalistic inquiry -- whether about the Dalai Lama, restive Xinjiang province, Falun Gong or the Party’s leadership -- are persecuted. For instance, Freedom House noted that during 2011’s short-lived Jasmine Revolution (a phrase inspired by the Arab Spring, and quickly blocked on Chinese social networking sites and chat rooms), dozens of Chinese bloggers, activists and lawyers were abducted and imprisoned.
Since Bloomberg News reported this summer on the $376 million in assets controlled by the extended family of incoming leader Xi Jinping, its website and that of Bloomberg Businessweek have been blocked within China -- a fate that also befell the New York Times several months later when it published its report on the family of Wen Jiabao. Chinese journalists are penalized or imprisoned for crossing the Party’s redlines; the reporters and staff of foreign news organizations, including Bloomberg, have been harassed and interrogated.
Chinese Communism and Western journalism may never mix, but China’s leaders have at times championed greater public access to reliable information. During the early 1980s, for example, when the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping were just gearing up, one of his pet projects was a joint venture with Encyclopaedia Britannica to create reference books that would help lead the Chinese out of the dark night of the Cultural Revolution.
China has come a long way since then, and print encyclopedias are going the way of the dodo, but as the country grows richer and the challenges of development become more complex, public access to wider sources of information is even more essential. Just as the Internet and social media have helped shine a spotlight on pollution and food safety, they can also help curb financial fraud, corruption and abuses of power - - all stated goals of the Chinese Communist Party. And without greater Internet access, Chinese companies will find it harder to climb the value chain or compete in the services market.
Outsiders have worked to punch holes in China’s Great Firewall. The U.S. Congress has appropriated about $95 million since 2008 for the State Department and USAID to support proxy servers, websites, apps and software targeting users in China and a dozen other countries. Other groups such as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Radio Free Asia and other U.S. international broadcasters, are also involved. More money for such efforts would help, especially if it provided more bandwidth and training for users. Groups such as Freedom House and the Open Net Initiative deserve wide public support for exposing censorship, filtering and surveillance. And all foreign media organizations operating in China have a shared interest in protesting censorship, regardless of whom it targets -- something that hasn’t happened often enough in the past.
The genius of what Internet researcher Rebecca MacKinnon calls China’s “networked authoritarianism,” however, is that it focuses on satisfying average users who don’t need or want access to foreign sites, and relies on self-censorship to achieve its goals. To push for change to China’s intranet means finding a way to target Baidu and other domestic providers. Legislative proposals to require U.S.-listed companies such as Baidu to disclose their censorship arrangements to investors make sense if they are tailored in a way that doesn’t swamp an already overburdened Securities and Exchange Commission.
As we have argued about Iran and Syria, we are less enthusiastic about legislating broad new export controls on U.S. Internet technology than about enhancing the effectiveness of voluntary groups such as the Global Network Initiative, which seeks to minimize the potential for censorship and other human-rights abuses while maximizing the span of the Web.
We are skeptical about any proposals for “reforming” Internet governance that China itself may offer at next month’s meeting in Dubai organized by the International Telecommunication Union. That said, the former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman recently predicted that Xi Jinping and his colleagues will inevitably have to re-balance China’s own Internet policies in favor of more openness. That would indeed be harmonious, and we hope he’s right.
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