Saturday, December 4, 2010

WikiLeaks Reveals China's Fear of the Web

I've been meaning to post this piece at Foreign Affairs, "The Digital Disruption," by Google's Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. What's interesting is that the authors hit most of the key themes of the digital revolution in world politics, but with WikiLeaks topping the charts this last week, something was missing, and I held off on posting it. Now though we've got the clearest indication of how China views web technology in the New York Times' report, "Cables Discuss Vast Hacking by a China That Fears the Web." (At Memeorandum and Techmeme.) The Times indicates the members of China's Politiburo Standing Committee (almost as high as one goes in the Chinese party government) directed hacking operations against Google's servers in the United States. This seems almost unreal from the perspective of power politics and traditional concerns over geographic spheres of influence and market shares in key industrial sectors. But this is the information age and Chinese officials don't like what they're finding. Schmidt and Cohen put some of this in perspective in their Foreign Affairs article:
Realists describe international relations as anarchic and dominated by self-interested states. Although there is little doubt about the dominant role states will and should play in the world, there is a great deal of debate about exactly how dominant they will be going forward. In these pages in 2008, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, described a "nonpolar world" that is "dominated not by one or two or even several states but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power." In the interconnected estate, a virtual space that is constrained by different national laws but not national boundaries, there can be no equivalent to the Treaty of Westphalia -- the 1648 agreement that ended the Thirty Years' War and established the modern system of nation-states. Instead, governments, individuals, nongovernmental organizations, and private companies will balance one another's interests.

Not all governments will manage the turbulence left in the wake of declining state authority in the same way. Much remains uncertain, of course, but it seems clear that free-market and democratic governments will be the best suited to manage and cope with this maelstrom. The greatest danger to the Internet among these countries -- perhaps best defined as the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- will be the overregulation of the technology sector, which has thus far thrived on entrepreneurial investment and open networks.

Perhaps no country has more carefully considered the implications of allowing its citizens access to connection technologies than China. The regime's goals are clear: to control access to content on the Internet and to use technology to build its political and economic power. Beijing has arrested online activists and used the country's thriving online bulletin boards to spread its propaganda. All of this is part of a strategy to ensure that the technology revolution extends, rather than destroys, the one-party state and its value system. Around the world, the Chinese model of Internet control has been copied by nations such as Vietnam and actively promoted in Asian and African countries where China is investing heavily in natural resources. And Beijing has moved to co-opt international institutions, such as the International Telecommunications Union, in order to gain global credibility and rally allies behind its efforts to control its citizens' communication.

But thanks to the work of activists and nongovernmental organizations operating inside and outside China, Beijing has learned that its attempts to establish total control of the Internet will not always work. The regime has recently been caught off-guard by the use of cell phones, blogs, and uploaded videos to encourage labor protests and report on industrial accidents, environmental problems, and incidents of corruption. The July 2009 demonstrations by ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang drew international media attention even after Beijing completely shut down all Internet connections in the region; Uighur activists used social networks and so-called microblogs to spread news among targeted audiences abroad, including the Uighur diaspora. These kinds of cat-and-mouse games will no doubt continue, but in the short run there is doubt that Beijing's attempts to control access to information will largely succeed.


Bartender Cabbie said...

interesting. They (China) just won't be able to shake their totalitarian ways. No matter. China is and will be an enemy of the West for years to come.

PacRim Jim said...

Given feckless Obama's WikiLeaks scandal, can you blame the Chinese?