By Steve Kelman

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The global economic crisis and the reputation of the U.S.

Some Americans have grown concerned about the possible effects of the global economic crisis, which began in the U.S., on America's reputation abroad. Many fear that the crisis will make people in other nations regard the U.S. less as of a model society than they did before, and also encourage the view that the U.S. is in decline as a great power. Especially given the importance of American "soft power" — the attractiveness of our society and culture — to America's power in the world, the economic crisis could have significance for national security.

Almost certainly, there is some justification for these concerns. However, discussions with students in China and South Korea show no evidence of this phenomenon, at least among smart young people. For most of the students I've talked with, studying — and perhaps staying — in the U.S. is still an incredibly sought-after dream. Chinese students go to extraordinary lengths to do so. They spend years of effort preparing for grad school entrance exams to try to gain admission to U.S. graduate programs. The prestige of U.S. universities is still sky-high, and more than one Chinese student during my current trip has told me that the freedom and meritocracy of the U.S. are attractive to them, compared with their own society. One professor said that, in terms of student views of the U.S., the global economic crisis was a "blip." I have only heard one person during my trip say that the crisis suggests the U.S. model is less attractive or is in decline, and that was a Western academic, not an Asian one.

I have been reporting on coverage in the English-language Chinese press of the Chinese government's decision to require Internet-blocking software on new computers. China Daily published a lengthy, incredibly frank column with the provocative title, "Dam this Net Nanny," a play on words of the name of this software ("Green Dam"). The columnist wrote that decisions to block pornographic software from computers should be made by parents, not the government. (Sounds like a pretty American perspective, doesn't it?) The column noted that if there are key words that the software blocks for Internet access, kids will work to get around this by using wordplays (especially easy in Chinese with so many homonyns that sound the same but have different Chinese characters) and slang.

The columnist wrote: "When language is enslaved, it bursts out in unexpected directions. Parents have been complaining of being unable to decipher what their kids write online. Pretty soon, censors will have a hard time decoding the slang terms, inserted alphabet and bewildering spaces. So their expansion of keywords may grow exponentially, bringing down millions of innocent websites in the process." An amazingly bold column, I thought.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 24, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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