Archive for the ‘Internet/Media’ category

Why?

March 8, 2010

We’ve got increasing US-China friction on a number of issues.  Observers have offered some pretty simple explanations for this situation, e.g. “the Obama Administration has been too soft on China so they feel they can push us around” or “China holds so much US debt that they have leverage to push us around”, etc.

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”.  Chinese government behavior (like our own) is driven by a complex set of factors (with domestic considerations by far the most influential).  The following is a partial list of the factors as I see them:

  • Continued sensitivity about being bullied or dominated by foreigners, growing out of China’s experience in the period 1840 – 1949 (sentiments kept fresh by the Chinese educational system and media).
  • (Overconfidence) (Justifiable pride) from success in managing the domestic economy in face of global economic crisis, which has (incorrectly in my view) discredited the US model of growth in the eyes of some Chinese.
  • Leadership insecurity at home driven by Tibet, Xinjiang, and increasing protests over economic and social issues, leading to a stronger voice by security and propaganda officials, who tend to be more suspicious of foreign companies/governments than the average Chinese official.
  • Jockeying before unusually large leadership change in 2012 (Party Chairman, Premier, and most of the Politburo Standing Committee turning over); at a time like this hopefuls for senior positions want to look tough on domestic and foreign issues.
  • Success of foreign companies in the China market since China’s WTO accession in 2001 that has created a backlash (think:  US in the 1980s (yikes, Japan is buying Rockefeller Center!))
  • Impact of internet opinion, which by all accounts Chinese leaders regularly view and take seriously and which in turn tend to be dominated by a nationalistic tone (younger people use the internet more and they tend to be more nationalistic).

Ok, so what to do about this?  Complex issues do not have simple solutions.  There is no magic bullet, but there are important steps we can take.  The subject of a future post.

Complexity

March 7, 2010

In a previous post I have railed against some pretty poor analysis in the NYT.  However, it is a great newspaper and can produce great reporting.  An example is a lengthy piece in the Sunday Magazine today, titled, “China’s Cyber Posse”  (link here:  NYT)

What’s great about the article is first, that it covers a fascinating topic (the efforts by netizens in China to track down and humiliate people who have for one reason or another incited public scorn).  But second, unlike much reporting on China, this article manages to convey the full complexity of the issue.  Yes, the Chinese “human flesh search engines” are a way for Chinese people to seek justice against some (e.g., corrupt local officials) in a society where a fair and effective justice system is still very much of a work in progress.  At the same time, it is frightening example of unrestrained vigilantism which can be directed at people whose only transgression is being seen by the mob as “unpatriotic” or who are mistakenly believed to have committed a crime.

Read the article.

Obama Shanghai Town Hall: Mission Accomplished

November 16, 2009

I stayed up way past my bedtime last night to watch the live feed (via White House website) of the President’s town hall meeting with students in Shanghai.  I took a particular interest in this event because while serving as Consul General in Shanghai I frequently visited college campuses and engaged in similar exchanges.  the format  (minus any press interest) was similar; I’d start with 20 minutes or so of views on US-China relations (including whatever topic was hot at the time) and then open the floor to questions.  Based on those experiences here are my reactions to yesterday’s event:

1)  The students were more polite to the President than they were to me.  This is no surprise.  I am certain the participants yesterday had been warned to maintain a respectful and polite attitude and to stay away from inflammatory questions.  This reflects more than anything the sense that China would be judged around the world by the demeanor of the students at this globally aired event.  To try to embarrass the President of the US or put him on the spot would be considered poor manners and would reflect badly on China.  So the questions for the President were pretty soft, though the clever students did manage to get in a question re US policy toward Taiwan (couched as a question from a Taiwan netizen); one about US aggressiveness around the world (couched as a question contrasting China’s drive for a “harmonious society” with US greater comfort with “diversity”); and one on internet freedom (again, a question from a netizen, relayed by a student in the room).

In contrast, I found in discussions with Chinese students that given the chance without the glare of cameras they could be very pointed, posing questions such as: Wasn’t it US policies in the Middle East that brought about the 9/11 attacks?  Why does the US see itself as the policeman of the world?  (in the aftermath of the EP-3 incident) Why does the US spy on China; isn’t it true the US wants to contain and weaken China? Why is the US so protectionist and why does it impose so many anti-dumping penalties on Chinese products?

As noted above, no surprise that in a very public forum Chinese students stayed away from very direct questioning.  That said, the students in the room were among the best and brightest in the country and I was impressed (again, as noted above) in the way that they managed to gently slide in questions on controversial topics.

2)  I thought the President did a great job, especially on the human rights and information freedom issues (take that NYT!).  He clearly intended to show the audience back home that he would not shy away from raising these tough issues.  However, he did so in the most effective way possible, which can be summarized as follows:  “Here is the way we in the US think about [human rights] [treatment of minorities] [internet freedom]; we are not perfect but we think our values in these areas have been central to our success as a nation; we are not out to force our views on other countries, but we do think that basic principles of freedom and human rights apply everywhere and we will continue to speak out in support of that view.”  In other words, his responses did not contain a direct rebuke to China but rather conveyed a humble expression of why we think our values/system is good for us and why we think these basic principles are universal.

3) Tiny nitpick of interest:  in responding to the question re Taiwan the President repeated our commitment to a one China policy and the Three Communiques.  Readers who know the intricacies of US policy on this issue will note that he did not refer to the Taiwan Relations Act, which is usually part of the mantra by USG officials when they mention the Three Communiques.  I took this not to be some intentional signal but rather a function of information overload for the President.  As insiders know, the language the USG uses on the Taiwan issue is exceptionally complex and nuanced.  In fact, the President clearly stumbled a bit when at one point he referred to Taiwan and then started to say “… and the rest of China”, but unsure if that was the right formulation, caught himself and said “…and the People’s Republic”.  So to me, he had done a great job of absorbing the sensitivity attached to the language surrounding Taiwan and dropping the TRA reference was, I think, not a signal but a sign of the limits of even his prodigious capacity to master complex issues in very short time spans.

The bottom line:  my goal in talking with students was not to enter into a debate nor win them over to my point of view.  Rather, it was to show them that the US government had a thoughtful, basically friendly approach to China, even if we did not agree on all issues.  I think the President conveyed very much the same message yesterday.

A Simple Solution

June 13, 2009

This “Green Dam-Youth Escort” filtering software issues continues to get more interesting in highlighting the complexities of the Chinese political system today.  On the one hand, senior levels of the Chinese government continue to press their support for the new regulation and propaganda officials reportedly have ordered that criticism of the new regulation in the media be stifled.

At the same time, opposition in China continues to grow and is widely aired on the internet (sort of ironic, no?).  One of the most interesting developments is the potential use of China’s new Anti-monopoly Law (AML) to attack the new regulation as an administrative abuse of power.  Here’s a description of the issue from the WSJ (subscription required; full article here:  http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124482083845410171.html):

“Zhou Ze, a political science professor at China Youth University, said he and a professor from Hong Kong have submitted formal complaints to China’s State Council and the National Anti-Monopoly Committee saying the requirement is an “abuse of power.”

They argue that it is anti-competitive because it will flood the market with software produced by two companies selected by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in a non-transparent way.”

Ok, so in 1979 China begins its policy of reform and opening.  Years later as a part of that process China enacts the AML, to deal with the issue of monopolies in the economy, an important issue all market-based economies must deal with.  And today it is being cited to attack the non-competitive way this filtering software was chosen for monopoly status by the Chinese government.  And who says that economic reforms don’t bleed over into reform of the political system?

To make matters worse, there now seems to be some evidence that the Green Dam software is based in part on pirated computer code from a US company (full AP article via Physorg.com:  http://www.physorg.com/news164103095.html):

“Solid Oak Software of Santa Barbara said Friday that parts of its filtering software, which is designed for parents, are being used in the “Green Dam-Youth Escort” filtering software that must be packaged with all computers sold in China from July 1.

Solid Oak’s founder, Brian Milburn, said he plans to seek an injunction against the Chinese developer that built the software, but acknowledged that it’s new legal terrain for his company…

A report released Thursday by University of Michigan researchers who examined the Chinese software supports Solid Oak’s claim that the Green Dam software contains pirated code. The report also found serious security vulnerabilities that could allow hackers to hijack PCs running the Chinese software.

The report found that a number of the “blacklist” files that Green Dam employs were taken from Solid Oak’s CyberSitter program.

The report’s authors – researchers in the university’s computer science and engineering division – also said they found another clue that Solid Oak’s code was stolen: a file that contained a 2004 CyberSitter news bulletin that appeared to have been accidentally included in Green Dam’s coding.”

All in all this is turning into a larger and larger embarrassment for the folks who promulgated this regulation and for China’s government more broadly.

And here’s a pop quiz:  what one simple step could Chinese regulators have taken to avoid all this embarrassment?

Answer:  Publication of the draft regulation with an adequate period of time for public comment.

In fact, I believe that prior publication and public comment on this kind of regulation would fall under China’s commitment to this mechanism as a part of its WTO accession.  In any event, I think it would be clearly required under guidelines that have been issued (more than once), though never effectively enforced, by China’s State Council.

Just think about it:  had this regulation been published as a draft with a 60 or 90 period for public comment, all of the concerns of Chinese citizens and foreign companies would have been aired.  Chinese companies with competing products could have made their case for a competitive selection process and software experts inside and outside China could have reviewed the Green Dam software to assess its effectiveness and expose any use of software piracy it contains.  Then regulators could have assessed whether changes were needed in the regulation in an orderly, non-embarrassing way.

Instead, the folks who rammed this sweetheart deal through the Chinese system in secrecy have put senior Chinese leaders in an awkward position, domestically and internationally.

It is true that China has ramped up its public support for the new regulation in response to the increasing criticism it has generated.  But I stand by my predict (see my previous post) that ultimately this regulation will be withdrawn or allowed to wither away unimplemented, though it may take six months to a year for that to happen.

In addition, I have some hope that this debacle will reinforce the voices of those within China who have argued strenuously for more transparency in government rulemaking, including a strict commitment to prior notice and public comment for new regulations.

And when China’s most senior leaders get together and talk about the Green Dam issue, I hope they realize that it was this pro-transparency group, not the unhealthy alliance of Chinese IT companies in bed with their Ministry supporters, who had the interests of China foremost in mind.

It’s the Economics, Stupid

June 10, 2009

All readers of this blog will have seen the extensive press coverage given to the reported Chinese government requirement that all new PCs in China come with filtering software aimed at blocking pornographic sites.  The stated purpose is to ensure that children surfing the web are protected from viewing these sites.  (Tons of coverage on this; just Google; I like the WSJ reporting, which seems to get at the complexities a bit better than others).

Some coverage has focused on the political aspect, i.e., suggesting this may be a backdoor route to even tighter political censoring of the Internet in China.  But I think this is not really the main point.  It’s more about the economics.

Of course, this new regulations does highlight the differences between the (expansive) Chinese view of the scope of activities appropriately managed by the government vs. the (much more narrow (yes, even today)) view in the US, a subject I have opined on previously in this blog.  The US approach to the issue of objectionable material on the Internet is to, first of all, view it as the responsibility of parents, not the government, to decide what their kids should see on the Internet.  Then, if they want a filter, they can compare commercially available products, choose one, and buy it.

I can imagine the situation in which government and Party officials are discussing the rampant pornography on the Internet and each in turn tries to outdo the other in denouncing it and demanding a solution, sort of what we often hear from the US Congress on similar issues.  The difference of course is that our basic view of the scope of government activity in society usually prevents this kind of rhetoric from developing into concrete government mandates.  It is much easier in China, given the broader view of the role of the government, for the rhetoric to become reality.

But more significant here is how this regulation represents the distortions in the Chinese economy that come from the unhealthy relations between government and enterprises.

Keep in mind that the new regulation mandates inclusion of a specific software product (“Green Dam-Youth Escort”) developed by two government-affiliated Chinese companies with each computer.  Yikes!  Even if the US were to implement some requirement for filtering software it is almost certain that the government would specify a set of standards such software has to meet, make the standards public (following a period of public review and comment) and then certify any product that met those standards.

But equally interesting is the fact that, according to press reports, there is no requirement that the software be used.  It may be possible to meet the requirements of the regulation by having the PC manufacturer include a copy of the Green Dam-Youth Escort on a disc in the box with the computer.  Or, even if pre-installed, it can apparently be turned off.  In this sense, it still gives the Chinese consumer the option to use or not use the software, and to go out on the market and buy a competing product.  But is does ensure enormous monopoly rents will accrue to the “government affiliated” institutions that developed the software.  A bit of money will go to them for each new PC sold in China!  Great franchise.  These guys have used their relationships with the Chinese government to print money.

So, it’s great for the officials who now can feel they are “doing something” about the pornography-on-the-internet problem.  And it is great for the managers of the companies that have been granted this monopoly.  Who loses?  Just the portion of the rest of the 1.3 billion Chinese people who will be buying new computers.  The price of that computer will be higher (at least a bit) due to the mandated inclusion of the new software.  And in fact, the increased cost will be higher than it would be if one firm had not been granted a monopoly.

So, if you ask me, this new requirement represents in a microcosm a huge issue that will continue to be a drag on the Chinese economy for some time to come:  government actions taken to support favored Chinese companies at the expense of the Chinese consumer and broader economy.

Having said all of the above, I do want to note the bright side:  reporting over the past few days has highlighted the backlash in China among web users over this new mandate.  A lot of the backlash has focused on the aspect of increased government control over what people see.

This active public backlash is a sign of an increasingly free, public debate over government policies.  It highlights the fact that in many areas, people are free to express views critical of government policies.

In fact, I will stick my neck out and make a prediction.  I believe the Chinese ministry that inflicted this new measure on the Chinese people did so without adequate consultation or coordination throughout the Chinese government.  Nor did they allow for public review and comment of the regulation.  It was mostly a sweetheart deal with some well-connected institutions.  Therefore:

I predict the Chinese government within a few months will either withdraw this new regulation or allow it to die a quiet death.  This is not your grandfather’s China.

Update:  just saw the very good NYT article outlining the growing opposition to the new regulation (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/11/business/global/11censor.html?_r=1).  That article states that the Chinese government, not the consumer, will pay for the new software, to the tune of RMB 41million.  Nonetheless, this represents government money that could have been spent for the benefit of China’s people in many ways much better than by providing monopoly profits to a couple of government affiliated companies.  That article also has the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman defending the new regulation.  Nonetheless, I stand by my prediction that the regulation will not wind up being implemented in any kind of effective way.

Youth

May 13, 2009

I just came across a very interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0512/p09s01-coop.html) written by Anne Donohue, a Professor of Journalism at Boston University who spent 6 months teaching at one of China’s top universities (Renmin in Beijing). The article offers her reflections on the political attitudes of her students. She opens by saying:

“I’ll admit it, I was naive. Twenty years after the Chinese government brutally put down a student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, I thought some vestige of that movement might still be found in China. But after spending six months in Beijing teaching journalism students at Renmin University, where several of the 1989 pro-democracy activists were once students, I found very few young people interested in carrying the torch of Lady Liberty.”

I think the article has some terrific insights re the thinking of Chinese university students. For example, the author states that:

“Rather than feeling horror about the [Tiananmen] crackdown, as most Westerners do, [her students] were more troubled by the chaos and social upheaval those 1989 students might have unleashed had they been successful. Stability and economic security reign supreme; other civil liberties might be nice someday far into the future.”

Later she writes:

“In a weird role reversal, the young students were the ones reminding me, the older teacher, to be patient. Repeatedly, they told me that China is a developing country, and that economic development might one day lead to some of the reforms I was encouraging. But when I reminded them that many developing countries – India, for example – have democracy and economic development, they were unconvinced.

One student boasted that China was going to build a high-speed rail system between Shanghai and Beijing, dislocating millions of Chinese in its path. In India, he lamented, this couldn’t get done, because the people would stop it. To him, and many young Chinese, democracy is too slow and too messy.

One student argued that China has too many peasants who are illiterate and couldn’t understand how to vote. Democracy could not work here, they insisted. I wonder what our forefathers were thinking when they entrusted the whole American enterprise to a bunch of illiterate farmers.

And for press freedom, these journalism students like the guiding hand of the government shaping the message that feeds the 1.3 billion Chinese.”

Much of this rings true for me. I think most university students in China are focused on practical issues such as getting a good job. They are proud of their country and do not put a high priority on seeking political change.

Most interesting to me though was the author’s reaction to these student attitudes vs. my attitude. The author writes:

“I left China discouraged. I wanted for my Chinese students what my American students take for granted: a chance to speak freely, to vote, to work in the field of journalism unfettered by the government. But when I asked my students, if in an ideal world, would they want the government to get out of their lives, the unanimous response was no. They liked what the government was telling them.”

I don’t find the attitudes of Chinese students discouraging. Part of the reason is that I have witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes in China from the 1980s. So in China today I see a society that has shortcomings when viewed from my American perspective. But it is a society which has evolved dramatically in a positive direction over the past 30 years and which continues to do so.

But second, I think I am more hesitant than the author to second guess the attitudes of Chinese people about their own society. I have not been shy over my career (or in this blog) in pointing out the shortcomings in China that I see through my American eyes. At the same time, ultimately, it is the Chinese people who have to decide whether they are happy with their current society and where they want it to go in the future.

In any event, I suggest you read the entire piece. It’s short and very interesting.

Complications

May 11, 2009

Last week I had the pleasure of spending two and a half hours discussing contemporary China with twenty senior US and international military medical officers (none from China, alas) at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX. This was one small part of a program the Army Medical Command runs several times a year.

I had a long presentation prepared, but the group was lively and engaged and I spent most of the time responding to their (thoughtful) questions. I found as I went along that I prefaced many of my responses (on human rights, China’s policy toward North Korea, the effect of China’s huge foreign exchange reserves, development of the Chinese military, etc.) with the phrase, “Well, it is complicated…”. Soon this became a running joke with the participants and as soon as someone asked a question the entire group would chant the phrase in unison before I began my response.

Even a casual reader will note that many of my posts in this blog have tried to convey the complexity of China and of issues in our bilateral relationship. And every now and then something catches my eye that really brings this complexity home to me:

Most China watchers will by now have read accounts of the edict issued by county-level officials in Hubei Province requiring local civil servants (collectively I guess) to smoke 230,000 packs of locally made cigarettes over the course of the year (Reuters piece on this: http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSPEK124354. The ostensible goal was to support the local cigarette company (too many local folks preferred the cigarettes from a neighboring province), increase its sales, and thus raise the county’s tax revenue. After a large local uproar and national and international press attention the edict was rescinded.

To an American this is pretty silly stuff. One of those humorous little pieces that newspapers or tv news shows throw in to lighten the day’s stories. But to me, this episode should be required study for all US diplomats and businesspeople contemplating work in China. Think for a minute what this episode tells us about the challenges of governing and doing business in China:

1. Motivation: what motivates local officials in China? Health of the local citizenry? Nope, increased tax revenue/increased economic growth. The system is sending clear signals that local officials are responding to. (Note: the same could be said with environmental protection vs. economic growth. Efforts have been made to factor “green GDP” into the evaluation of local officials, but I’m not sure that this has yet shown much impact.)

2. Education level/worldview: The fact that these officials could be so blind to the negative health and public relations aspects of this edict says a lot. I suspect their education level is low, they have little experience outside their province, and their view of the world does not extend much beyond the county borders in fact. We need tax revenue; cigarette factory is major employer; let’s set a quota for smoking local cigarettes. Think of the challenge of running a country with enormous numbers of local officials with such limited vision.

3. Government/industry relationship: A major problem in China is the “too close” relationship between government and companies, esp. at the local level. The impulse to favor local companies over those from “outside” is strong and well documented in the Chinese press, which often notes examples of “local protectionism”. It can be a desire for tax revenue and economic growth, personal relationships between company managers and government officials, or corruption. But how do you build an open and competitive market under such circumstances? And imagine the challenges if you are a foreign company going up against a local (or national) champion!

4. Level of government involvement: Today the Chinese government has much less control over personal behavior than in the past, but this episode underscores the extent to which there persists a much broader view of the scope of government involvement in personal, economic, and political matters than in the US. I have no doubt that Central government officials were appalled and embarrassed by this incident. And yet, on issues such as the development of China’s IT sector, they readily embrace a broad involvement by the government in nurturing and protecting chosen Chinese companies. Very different issues, but there is an underlying consistency of perspective re the role of government. I have also commented on this in the context of the requirement that Chinese films must get government approval before being submitted to international film festivals. We’ve had too little government oversight in the US in recent years in the financial sector, but China has had way too much across the board for several decades.

5. Role of media: this is a positive. Years ago this incident would never have come to light. At best it might have found its way into one of the internal reports prepared for central government officials to monitor developments at the local level. The report might or might not have resulted in action. However, this story was splashed across domestic Chinese news (with tv news anchors criticizing the local officials on the air), the internet, and foreign media. Within days of exposure of the incident, the edict was rescinded. This is a huge change for governance in China. It highlights the extent to which media controls have been relaxed somewhat and the positive role the media can play in improving the work of government when given the chance.