Internet

Many thanks to the ever thoughtful Erin Ennis, Vice President of the US-China Business Council for bringing to my attention an interesting opinion piece by Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in the April 28 issue of the Times of London (article at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6181699.ece)

As noted in the Times, on April 16 Liu (who is under house arrest in Beijing) was awarded the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.   The Times published this piece in honor of the occasion of the award to Liu, noting that it is an edited version of an article Liu wrote in 2006.

The title of the piece, “The Internet is God’s Present to China” conveys the thrust of Liu’s remarks.  He emphasizes the enormous contribution the internet has made to the ability of dissidents, and ordinary Chinese, to obtain information, expose government misdeeds, and coordinate their efforts to “fight for freedom”.  For example, he notes that before the internet, getting agreement on the text of a joint letter of protest and gathering the signatures for it was an enormously slow and difficult process as was duplicating and distributing such a letter.  The internet has made such efforts dramatically easier.  It has also enabled citizens around the country to bypass the official media and publicize government-related scandals.  Liu attributes the first Chinese government public apologies for its actions to publicity brought by the internet.

This is a very interesting piece, regardless of what one thinks of Liu Xiaobo’s views or the human rights policies of the Chinese government.  First it helps further demolish the notion that China’s political system is frozen in time.  In my view, China’s political system continues to evolve (albeit not at the rate many observers would like to see).  As Liu notes:  “The ease, openness and freedom of the internet has caused public opinion to become very lively in recent years. The Government can control the press and television, but it cannot control the internet. The scandals that are censored in the traditional media are disseminated through the internet. The Government now has to release information and officials may have to publicly apologise.”  Though written three years ago, if anything I think this phenomenon has grown since then.

Second, Liu’s piece adds weight to those who have argued that the internet does contribute to more openness in a society.  It would be foolish to think of the internet as the magic bullet that can transform political systems overnight, but by the same token, as Liu’s piece attests, it does make its contribution to transparency and citizen participation on the affairs of the government.

Third, I noted in an earlier post (Media Matters) the efforts the Chinese government is making to further develop international media platforms to get its message out to the world.  In that post I noted that the biggest hurdle for this effort is developing the credibility of a government-controlled media outlet.  The wealth of information and views available from Chinese people on the internet unfiltered by the government contributes to the height of this hurdle.

Erin:  thanks for flagging this.

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Explore posts in the same categories: China, Human Rights, Internet/Media

One Comment on “Internet”

  1. Erin Says:

    My pleasure, Hank! An added aspect that struck me about the piece: US technology companies have been criticized for doing business in countries that limit access to the Internet, including by members of Congress. Particular focus has been made on China.

    While there are arguments to be made on both sides about what companies can and should do, this piece notes that no matter what attempts are in place to limit the Internet, there are ways around them.

    It also reminded me of another story on the reach of the internet and related technologies: during last year’s earthquake, Twitter was one of the ways many Chinese were able to let their families know that they were ok.

    I’m still dubious about the value of the Twitteratti, but clearly even (what I would consider) niche technology reaches into China in ways that no one likely initially intended.


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