Nick Kristof has a terrific column in The New York Times today on the power of blogs and the internet to challenge Chinese dictatorship. Yes, it’s behind the Great Wall of New York. But I’ll quote some good bits.
Kristof starts his own blogs in China and posts all kinds of things that censors should consider inflammatory — about imprisoned journalists, corruption, Falun Gong, and Tiananmen Square. The censors put asterisks on a few words but the posts stay up. And Kristof says:
All this underscores, I think, that China is not the police state that its leaders sometimes would like it to be; the Communist Party’s monopoly on information is crumbling, and its monopoly on power will follow. The Internet is chipping away relentlessly at the Party, for even 30,000 censors can’t keep up with 120 million Chinese Netizens. With the Internet, China is developing for the first time in 4,000 years of history a powerful independent institution that offers checks and balances on the emperors.
It’s not that President Hu Jintao grants these freedoms, for he has arrested dozens of cyberdissidents as well as journalists. But the Internet is just too big and complex for State Security to control, and so the Web is beginning to assume the watchdog role filled by the news media in freer countries. . . .
He tells the story of blogger Li Xinde, whom he has covered before, going around China “reporting on corruption and human-rights abuses.” In a great game of political wack-a-mole, Mr. Li keeps popping up. He told Kristof:
“They can keep closing sites, but they never catch up. You can’t stop the Yellow River from flowing, and you can’t block the bloggers.”
Put that on a T-shirt and wear it in the Forbidden City.
China’s leaders decided years ago to accept technologies even if they are capable of subversive uses: photocopiers and fax machines at first, and now laptops and text messaging. The upshot is that China is much freer than its rulers would like.
To me, this trend looks unstoppable. I don’t see how the Communist Party dictatorship can long survive the Internet, at a time when a single blog can start a prairie fire.
: These movements and technologies need our support. That’s why I’ve been lambasting or lampooning Yahoo and Google executives over their China policies.
But at last week’s Hyperlinked Society conference, I spent a little time with people who know one helluva lot more about this issue than I do, including Xiao Qiang of the UC-Berkeley China Internet Project and Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices. I won’t attempt to say what they say for fear of misquoting them. I’ll just give you my own thoughts. First, I’ll try to capture the back-and-forth we see on China and the internet:
The company lines we keep hearing from those who do business in China are (1) that the Chinese people are better off with a crippled internet than no internet at all, and (2) that these companies need to follow local laws. The other line we sometimes hear is that the Chinese people don’t care about politics and don’t want or need these freedoms, but I won’t dignify that with a response.
The problem with hiding behind these company lines is simply that if you never say no to the Chinese government, they will keep doing what they do. Not saying no to them is saying yes.
Many of us wish these companies would take the risk of saying no when China’s dictators demand information that might send people to jail or cripple their services. But the companies and their defenders reply they these are businesses that have an obligation to their shareholders to make money; they can’t pull out of China or even risk having to. Some of us say in return that these companies need to have an ethical compass or else they are damaging not only their ability to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning but also their brands and reputations around the globe — and that is, indeed, a business issue.
But I think it is also up to us to put countervailing pressure, to give these companies cover. The problem in our own First Amendment fight against the so-called Parents Television Council and its lapdogs at the FCC and in Congress is that no one wants to vote in favor of the First Amendment when they can be accused of voting for smut. We need to give them cover; we need to demand our freedom of speech. At a much more urgent level, the same is true for internet companies doing business in China.
It’s fair to say that perhaps these companies should not be expected to do this on their own — to stand up to the world’s biggest dictatorship and their shareholders at the same time, just because they want to be decent. So perhaps it is up to us to put that pressure on by asking that they stand up for principle to protect their trusted relationships with us — their brands and businesses, in short. I’m not talking boycotts and nasty campaigns. Think of this less as an attack on the companies and more as a favor to them. We need to help them out by giving the a reason to stand up and have guts. I’m simply saying that when they try to say no to the Chinese dictators, they need a reason why — because of the pressure around the world supporting freedom of speech for everyone.
That means the first step is to state those principles. I think Amnesty International made a good first step at its Irrepressible.info:
I believe the Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the Internet – and on companies to stop helping them do it.