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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

China and Internet Optimism

When reading Goldsmith and Wu's Who Controls the Internet? (discussed previously here), the chapter that most disturbed me was the one on China.  That was likely because I'm putting the finishing touches on my next book scheduled for publication in October, The Seach for Deliberative Democracy in China.  My book certainly is optimistic for China's future; Goldsmith & Wu are pessimistic.  To be sure, my optimism is based on interesting experiments in deliberative democracy underway within China; their pessimism is based on their conviction that the Internet can only do so much to open up a political society fully committed to controlling information and to preventing it from flowing freely.  Goldsmith & Wu ultimately do not think the architechture of the Internet (however it may have been conceived by its founding fathers) contains the seeds of freedom; bordered and closed societies can remain so, an Internet notwithstanding.  They use China as a case study to make this point.

In light of their pessimism, Nicholas Kristof's experimentation with blogging in China is interesting.  In short, Kristof was able to blog within mainland China about all sorts of inflammatory matters that would be on the top of any censors list: he blogs aggressively about June 4, 1989, about the jailing of a NYT correspondent, about the Falun Gong.  No one shuts him down.  He concludes:

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.

Although before reading Goldsmith & Wu, I might be inclined to this optimism, Goldsmith & Wu have an easy rejoinder: as soon as people actually start to read a blog with any frequency and the critical and inflammatory blog gets wide readership, it is easy for the censors to shut it down.  Of course, Kristof reports on just how easy it is to start a new blog in its stead.  But I think he'd have to acknowledge that it is hard to blog from a Chinese prison.  I remain optimistic for China's future; but I think Goldsmith & Wu are right that the Internet will only be relatively small part of China's transformation.

UPDATE: For more thoughts on the matter, check out some posts by a former student of mine who is living in Beijing this summer.

Posted by Ethan Leib on June 20, 2006 at 12:53 PM in Blogging | Permalink

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» Is Nicholas Kristof an idiot? the "******* vs. Netizens" case from Development Bank Research Bulletin
Nicholas Kristof, op-ed columnist of New York Times, publishes an article today describing how he tests the limits of the Internet in China. He started several blogs in Chinese internet service provider, and find that however political sensitive words ... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 20, 2006 11:28:59 PM

» C-words: Part II from Asia Business Law
In "China and Internet Optimism," Professor Ethan Leib takes sides on an issue pertinent to AsiaBizLaw's contributors: Will China evolve into a society where information is freely available... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 21, 2006 10:41:43 AM

» Chinese censorship and the infoglut from digital garbage
Yesterday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about his experiments in testing Chinese censorship of the internet. (See In China Its ******* vs. Netizens, June 20, 2006, subscription required.) Kristof started two Chinese-... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 23, 2006 12:57:56 PM

Comments

Christopher,

It's a kind of crony capitalism, but we see from the example of Halliburton, et al, that that sort of political influence enabled crony capitalism can be hugely profitable. I don't really buy into the notion that economies ever operate in the free market sense that you suggest is an ideal. There's usually a variety of efficiency at work regardless. The companies with the most to offer in one way or another are the ones that get the gigs.

Thanks again for the "anonymous" tip. I was interested in your writings on the eminent domain stuff, having done a bit of research and writing on the topic. Working on something now with an ED component in China--deal involving the local government demolishing some houses for this company. Joy. Sorry you lost your noodle shop. I've been to your blog before while in the States, I think. I think I saw it mentioned on Dan Harris's blog.

Be good.
Bart

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jun 22, 2006 5:26:01 AM

Bart,

Doesn't your example clearly display the tension between capitalism and totalitarianism? Such "rent-seeking" as a means of resource-allocation, while convenient for the 2 parties involved, is not efficient. Rather, it's akin to nepotism, which breeds inefficiencies, as demonstrated in economies w/ less than the ideal degree of capitalism. The example you provide illustrates a lack of accountability, permitting regulatory decisions to be made purely out of an official's self-interest. This is the opposite of a free market, unless the commodity in question is power.

Glad the anonymous avenue panned out.

Posted by: Christopher Cassidy | Jun 22, 2006 4:50:43 AM

Thanks Christopher. I figured it out based on your comments. I didn't know that that workaround existed. You can email me at bmotes ~at~ gmail.

Disagree with your point about authoritarianism and economic liberalism. Or rather, it may be the case that centralized authority and economic liberalism don't work. But you can have decentralized authoritarianism like there is in China today working hand in glove with capitalism very efficiently. The power of the state combined with economic motivations=the kind of situations that we see all around China today. This morning I sat in on a client meeting and the discussion was basically all about the local bureaucrat's political ambitions and how that translated into a willingness to make deals that give the company the economic rewards that it wants and the bureaucrat the political capital that he wants. It's wacky corrupt municipality stuff writ large.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jun 22, 2006 3:51:01 AM

Bart,

There are avenues around the censorship here. We couldn't read our own blog for weeks, but recently found an anonymous re-router, that helps circumvent the Party's filters. I can now access almost anything I want here.

I went to your blog, looking to share this avenue privately, but didn't see your e-mail address. You might find it or others like it by searching "anonymous..." Good luck.

If you are able to find our blog (visible for most by clicking on my name, below,) our most recent post on the subject at hand addresses one of the points that Bart makes. The problem with authoritarian governments that are economically pragmatic is that the notions of centralized authority and economic liberalism are inherently at odds. Sure, Singapore pulls it off, but it is undoubtedly the exception. The tensions between "the People's" dictatorship and a market economy are readily visible in China, with even a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese social evolution over the past 30 or so years. For more, please check out our recent posts.

Posted by: Christopher Cassidy | Jun 22, 2006 2:51:56 AM

Making pronouncements about a country as large or as diverse as China, with as decentralized a decision making structure is awfully difficult, but heck, we do it about the United States all the time, so why not?

First off, I can't read your former student's blog. I am in Shanghai right now and I have never been able to read any .blogspot.com addresses in China.

Second, I have accessed the internet in three ways since I have been in China this trip. One is an open and clearly legit internet bar with all the right government approvals. The second is a much shadier internet bar located on the second floor of a big building. The third is the internet service at the law firm I am interning at.

I use gmail for my email. Gmail uses google.com's domain. In the public internet bar #1, I can almost never access gmail or google. In the shady internet bar, I can access gmail most of the time. At my job, I hardly ever have a problem. The point is this: there are lots of different ways to control access. Mr. Kristof is without a doubt, a very knowledgable China hand. But he's probably typing from a very nice hotel that caters to Westerners. Who cares what people from such a hotel are writing or reading? Just make sure that people off the streets can't see it. So I think Kristof's experiment is lacking the second component: can an ordinary Chinese in an internet bar actually access what he wrote? Can he find it himself through a basic generic search in a popular search engine?

So I think Kristof's idea is either flawed, or as the excellent post in the trackbacks from the Development Bank Research Bulletin points out dangerously naive.

The debate about the future of China really seems rather outdated now. Will China democratize? Will the Party lose its grip on the country? The fact is that the most important players in China today: the leadership, the foreign businesses investing there, the rising middle class, and the disenfranchised peasantry couldn't give a fig about any of those issues. They'd all be perfectly happy with a well-run authoritarian government that is economically successful. China's government has avoided discontent so far because it has raised the standard of living so dramatically over the past twenty years. The big threat to the government today is the disenfranchised peasantry. If the government can find a way to reintegrate them into the economy, it has nothing to worry about. If not, big trouble awaits.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jun 21, 2006 11:39:51 PM

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