Will the Real Chinese Internet Please Stand Up?

Will the Real Chinese Internet Please Stand Up?

In the new century, liberty will spread by cell phone and cable modem….We know how much the Internet has changed America….Imagine how much it could change China…[The Beijing regime] has been trying to crack down on the Internet–good luck. That’s sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall.
-Bill Clinton, March 8, 2000

In many respects, information has never been so free….[But new media] are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns and nuclear energy can power a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or ill.
-Hillary Clinton, January 21, 2010

THE LAST Chinese story to make international headlines in 2009 and the first to capture global attention this year seem, at first, to have little in common. One involved the tragic plight of a persistent critic of the Chinese government, who was sentenced to a long prison term on Christmas Day. The other has centered on the actions and statements of a giant American corporation and the Chinese government’s response to its charges of interference. There is, however, an important connection between Liu Xiaobo’s recent imprisonment and Google’s threats to leave China: the Internet. Between them, the Liu Xiaobo and Google stories shed important light on the multiple hopes and fears that Chinese cyberspace inspires and that are voiced through the virtual worlds that the Internet has brought into existence.

The official charges against Liu Xiaobo claimed that his writings were subversive in content and made no mention of the media through which they were disseminated, but cyber insecurity was a clear motivating factor behind his arrest. The Chinese government is very worried about the role the Internet has been playing in his thinking as well as the methods for dissemination that it provides him.

Going back to the popular upheaval of 1989, Liu’s history of bravery, activism, and arrests predates the Web. But his most recent writings include “The Internet is God’s Present to China,” a stirring piece that he composed to coincide with his winning of a PEN award for human rights activism. Appropriately, it’s a work that immediately began to circulate online, and it picks up on the theme of Bill Clinton’s 2000 speech with its vision of liberty “spreading by cell phone and cable modem”–even if the Chinese government’s largely successful effort to keep the casual user of the Chinese Internet ignorant of Liu’s writings reveals the limits of Clinton’s “nailing Jello to the wall” metaphor.

The most significant Internet-related side of the Liu Xiaobo story, however, is that the specific reason that he drew the ire of the authorities this time around was because of his central role in the “Charter 08” petition–a call for government reform and openness that Liu co-authored. From the start, the petition was designed for cyberspace promulgation, and it quickly and impressively gained thousands of signatories as it intermittently managed to work its way around blocking mechanisms within China and move swiftly and openly to other parts of the world.

It should be no surprise–to bring in a direct tie to the Google story–that one of the main goals of the Chinese hackers who breached Google’s security seems to have been to gain access to the Gmail accounts of high-profile signatories of Charter 08. But what is most interesting about the story of Liu and Charter 08, as well as the Google controversy, is that it reminds us not only of the powerful emotions that are continually projected onto Chinese cyberspace; it also shows just how differently those across geographical and political divides view the workings of the Web. With both the cases of Liu Xiaobo and Google, the Internet has come to play a malleable role–appearing sometimes as hero, sometimes as villain.

From the government’s perspective, Liu Xiaobo and his collaborators are villains, posing a threat to social order. In this context, hackers who take aim at Google (and sometimes even the American government) can be imagined as patriots. But among China’s “netizens,” views vary more widely. Support for Liu Xiaobo and criticism of the stiff eleven-year prison term he received have gone around via Twitter and other micro-blogging programs, and Google’s threat to pull out of China–framed as a response to not just the hacking but also continued official insistence that it censor its search mechanism–has been both applauded and denounced by Chinese bloggers.

All of this is set, of course, against a much broader spectrum of Chinese who—though regular Internet users—care little about either of these issues or are, particularly in Liu’s case, entirely ignorant of it. In this sense, as Qian Gang, co-director of the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, recently pointed out, the Chinese government’s efforts at censorship have been successful, even if Chinese Internet users continue to push at the edges.

CLEARLY, A complex push-and-pull between intensely felt hopes and deep-rooted fears have shaped—and continue to shape—the workings of the Chinese Internet. Hope (for change, for understanding, for continued growth) remains a persistent component of the Internet, while the Chinese cyberspace also engenders fear and insecurity on both sides of the Pacific. So the question is—how exactly do the rise of Web dissidents and the controversy over Google illustrate the intertwining of hope and fear in visions of the Chinese Internet?

Beginning with Chinese hopes and fears, we see the stories as bringing into sharp relief one kind of conflict: This is between, on the one hand, a key hope of reformers like Liu Xiaobo (that the Internet will be a tool for liberation) and, on the other, a key fear of the Chinese government (that online activism can all too easily unite and mobilize people from diverse backgrounds and based in widespread places).

The hope that a new form of communication technology will serve as a tool for political liberation has been around since the 1990s—or even longer if one thinks of the role that earlier “new technologies” sometimes played in disseminating new ideas and confounding official censorship in the 1980s, such as when faxed reports of the June 4 Massacre made their way into China in 1989 and undermined the regime’s “Big Lie” campaign.

But the fear over technology’s role has been around since the 1990s as well: one reason, for example, that the regime moved so swiftly against the Falun Gong sect in the late nineties was because the group had shown itself so adept at using e-mail and Web sites to publicize its cause and bring its members together for an April 1999 sit-in.

The corporate espionage that Google spokespeople are implying happened in January was also motivated by hope and fear: China’s hope that it will continue to grow economically—even if this growth is dependent on reverse engineering, borrowing, and sometimes even stealing proprietary technologies developed elsewhere—and its fear of U.S. military power, the destabilizing effects of free speech, and the limits foreign companies and governments may attempt to place on China’s political and economic growth.

In America, too, hopes and fears inform popular and political views of the Chinese Internet. Since the end of the Cold War, many Americans have hoped (and it is here that Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” ideas have provided them with great comfort) that increased economic exchange would lead to political change in China, bringing Chinese values more in line with our own.The Internet seemed to offer a method for doing so. It was imagined to be a neutral space where activists like Liu Xiaobo could receive encouragement from an international band of supporters.*

But recent events have turned the “End of History” expectations on their heads. Stories like the hacking of dissidents’ Gmail accounts are noteworthy to the American reading public because they reveal something that should already have been clear: that the Internet is merely a tool, less a cure-all than a mechanism that sometimes furthers dialogue and openness and other times helps monitor and even suppress or delete speech and dissent.

Looking at Chinese cyberspace in a less romanticized way, what we see is not a discontented population eager to be enlightened and set free, but instead an arena filled with its own internal debates and discussions. Alongside the clever Chinese netizens who deftly confound word filters and poke holes in the firewall, there are also patriotic hackers, Han ethno-nationalists, and government moles using the Internet in equally adept ways to deploy their own views.

In this sense, the China that emerges online raises a new set of Western fears: namely, that China will go its own way, that its capitalism “with Chinese characteristics” will never be “our” kind of capitalism, and that it will throw around its increasing economic, political, and military muscle in order to stifle American interests and desires.

SO WHERE do we go from here? Can we break out of–or at least learn from–the seemingly endless cycle of hopes and fears that often distort the way China and the U.S. understand one another? Are there choices other than the far too limiting ones offered by “End of History”-style convergence (which isn’t happening) and Samuel Huntingon’s “Clash of Civilizations”(which is flawed in its assumption that highly diverse populations can be treated monolithically)?

Perhaps there is a nugget of truth in the China stories of the moment in that they point us toward a new way of thinking about the PRC—one that might, if we are self-aware about it, bring us to at least more realistic hopes and fears about that country. It was never logical to believe that the Chinese—as Dick Cheney so infamously predicted of the Iraqis—would “greet us a liberators.” It is also wrong to assume that China is an enduring monolith where everyone shares the same values. The Chinese Internet, for one, reveals a country where different social groups and individuals within those groups hold divergent views due to factors ranging from their generation to their gender, to their rootedness in a single locale or to their frantic mobility.

In part, what both stories should flag for us is the continued concern Chinese leaders have over instability and its devastating effect on China’s precarious growth. As Susan Shirk relates in the introduction to her book, Fragile Superpower, the title of her book raised questions on both sides of the Pacific with Americans asking how China could be thought of as “fragile” and with Chinese asking how China could be thought of as a “superpower.” Despite China’s phenomenal growth—and the fact that, on the international stage, it is indeed now a superpower that seeks to influence international trends and events—it is still remarkably fragile.

It may be the third-largest economy in the world (and headed for number two, probably this year), but it only clocks in at about hundredth in terms of per capita GDP. And though China seems to have weathered the recent economic meltdown better than most countries, it did so only through massive infusions of government funds into the economy and by pegging the yuan artificially low against the dollar (a policy that is drawing increasing ire from the United States and increasing concern from the rest of the world for its possible long-term effects on growth everywhere). In other words, it’s understandable that the government worries about social stability, due to how unevenly distributed the fruits of Chinese growth have been and how much discontent continues to be generated by official corruption (a problem that has remained intractable since the 1980s, despite high-profile campaigns to fight it).

All of this isn’t to suggest that cracking down on online speech is justified or that doing so will ensure continued prosperity. Morality aside, in the long run limiting the flow of information will undermine, rather than buttress, stability and growth. But as the Internet matures and becomes more fully integrated into our lives and economies, it is increasingly clear that the new media should not be seen as panacea for any form of politics. It can’t bring us together just because it creates a transnational space for discussion and interaction; it can foster solidarity or harden polarizing divides within and between countries. And it definitely creates new challenges for both China and the United States–internally and in terms of trying to understand and deal with one another.

In China, continued limits on speech as they are balanced against social stability create particular challenges. There’s a chance that a new generation, led by urban young people who are devoted to China’s continued success, will also make new demands of the government that cause it to shift its policies in regards to the Internet. In this way, the Internet may well fulfill as well as confound its promise in China—allowing for further speech (despite recent crackdowns and censorship, there has already been much expansion) without, ultimately, undermining the Communist Party.

Kate Merkel-Hess is an ACLS/Mellon Postdoctoral fellow at UC Irvine, the Editor of “The China Beat” blog/electronic magazine, and a co-editor of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance (2009). Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, forthcoming in April from Oxford University Press.

Photo: At a Beijing product launch in March, 2009 (Keso / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 2.0).

* While the Internet was imagined to be a neutral space, a pair of prescient essays in Wired magazine by Sang Ye and Geremie Barmé called attention to the virulent nationalism of some computer-savvy China and the Chinese government’s strategies to control the Web. (See their “Computer Insect” article, which appeared in the July 1996 edition of Wired, and their “The Great Firewall of China,” which contains perhaps the earliest use of that now ubiquitous term, in the June 1997 edition.)

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