By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Is Internet freedom coming to China?

At one point during his presidency Bill Clinton said that if China's economy was to conintue growing , it would have to become more dependent on innovation. Closed societies, he said, are not as good at innovation as open ones.

I agree with him. For decades, the Soviet Union grew rapidly, propelling the country from basket case to superpower. But at a certain point, the closed nature of the Soviet economy made further growth difficult.

This is why the issue of Internet freedom is important for the future of China. (It is ironic that there is a Facebook fan page for the World's Fair that just opened in Shanghai, but this page -- as I noted myself in a post on the wall of the fan page recently -- is inaccessible in China.)

When I role-played Secretary Hillary Clinton in the practice briefings that our Master's of Public Policy students did on U.S.-China relations (see my earlier posts on this), I asked each of the five "staffers" (actually, first-year Kennedy School students) how likely they thought it was that within 10 years Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (or their equivalents in 10 year's time) will be available in China. Almost every one of the 10 students I asked thought the chances were very high, 80 percent or 90 percent..

By coincidence, the afternoon the spring exercise ended, I did my quarterly talk to a group of visiting Chinese university students who are participating in a program called China Future Leaders.  So I took advantage of the opportunity to ask them the same question. Thirteen of the students thought it was "likely" these sites would be available, only three that it was "unlikely."

But not all the votes were so optimistic from an Internet freedom perspective. By a 12-4 vote, the students agreed with the argument of the Chinese government that if Google didn't obey Chinese laws (including web blocking), they should leave China.  When I asked them if they were unhappy, happy, or didn't care that Google had left China, they split down the middle - eight were unhappy, eight didn't care. 

One student noted that Google Maps for China could have military uses, and stated that China needed a powerful search engine of its own (this is Baidu, the largest search engine site in China) for national security reasons.  Four of the students also told a version of the government's story that "China is a large, populous country that could very easily become unstable, and the government needs to be strong to prevent instability."

Afterwards, though, one student came up to me privately to discuss a topic he said "was not getting enough attention in China."  With China's one-child policy, there is a surplus of boys over girls (due to gender-related abortions and perhaps even some infanticide), creating a situation where there are a large number of 20-something migrant workers in the big cities who are having a hard time finding girlfriends. With China's Web blockers stopping pornography, he was concerned that these young guys would become a source of social unrest and instability. 

Who knows, maybe this is an argument for Internet freedom that China's rulers might buy!

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 04, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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