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[berkman] Rebecca MacKinnon on the Chinese Internet and democracy

Rebecca MacKinnon isgiving a Berkman talk on the Chinese Internet. [Note: Live-blogging, hence full of errors and omissions and typos and misspellings and inadequate paraphrases.] [For a better report, see Ethan Zuckerman‘s]

She begins by pointing to Lao Tze’s saying that directly grasping something is often the worst way of controlling it. Then she shows a video of Chinese kids lipsyncing to the Backstreet Boys. They’re now famous in China as the “Back Dorm Boys.” The Chinese government has lost control of the culture, she says. Novelists and artists are routing around the control structure. For 66% of Chinese young people, the Web is the primary source of video entertainment. Most of it is found through social networking.

Premier Wen Jiabao gave a two hour chat online with Netizens. Questions came in from the Web, moderated by a journalist. It showed a human side of the Chinese leaders. “This is being greeted by many in China with euphoria.” The Premier said that he spends 30-60 mins on line everyday and considers it an important way to hear what people are thinking. There’s an egov site, including chat rooms and forums, as well as providing online services.

The National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meets for two weeks every year, primarily to rubber stamp decisions. The Premier gives a live press conference once a year. Now he’s on the Web responding to questions directly. The meeting has a site (run by a Chinese newspaper) where people can comment, make suggestions, etc. Someone posted that the one child policy should be ended, with a lively open discussion among Chinese citizens.

So, asks Rebecca, is this “Chinese cyber-glasnost”? Chinese government Web sites are celebrating this as “Internet democracy.” But …

… Blogger Wang Xiaofeng blogged yesterday that people are getting too emotional about this. “Without a proper political structure, all Premiere Wen can do is interact with people on an emotional level…” He posted that yesterday. Today is blog is “closed temporarily.” He was told to close his blog. Other blogs talking about this have to insert spaces between words that otherwise would trigger inspection.

Dissidents are still in jail, Rebecca says. Bloggers, opposition party folks, lawyers… Yongnian Zheng talks about “authoritarian deliberation.” (His book: Technological Empowerment). Authoritarian regimes allow different degrees of deliberation. China is more deliberative because of the Internet, says Rebecca, but institutionally it hasn’t changed.

Our common Western paradigm makes it hard for us to understand Chinese Internet control, Rebecca says. We tend to think of it like the Great Wall: A barrier blocks people from accessing outside information. It is, as Lokman Tsui calls it, the “Iron Curtain 2.0.” Internet filtering is only one small part of censorship in China. It only affects sites hosted outside of China. For those hosted inside, the “Net nanny” metaphor is more accurate: A paternalistic state that protects people from themselves and maintains order. Google China does not show gory photos when you search for “Tianamen Massacre.” Baidu, the largest search service in China, returns zero results. If you try to post a post that contains trigger words, it goes into a moderation queue from which it never emerges. Eight out of 15 blog hosting services removed “objectionable” political content. The censoring is done by the hosting companies.

We could also use the metaphor of hydroelectric engineering. Most of the Chinese leaders have engineering backgrounds. When the storm comes, you put up the dam, then you let water out. New technique: The official news agencies quickly break stories that are bad news for the government (e.g., riots in Weng’an county in 7/08), and then they censor the unofficial versions. The official version “flooded” the Web.

People routed around this censorship. Youc ouldn’t talk about Weng’an, but you can talk about pushups, because the official story behind a murder was that a man was doing pushups on the bridge. Bloggers used pushups as a way of talking about the forbidden content. Or:” the government used “Harmonious Society” as a slogan. People had started using “harmonized” to mean “censored,” but then “harmonized” got censored, so people started using “rivercrab,” which is very close to “harmonious.” Then people started posting rivercrabs wearing three watches because that’s close to another slogan.

Another example. There was an anti-porn crackdown in January. Political discussions were removed along with smut. So, a video showed up, a happy children’s chorus about alpaca sheep, because “alpaca sheep” and “fuck your mother” are very similar; it’s a protest against censorship. It went viral. Now it’s spawned academic research.

“This is why keyword censorship is bound to fail. There’s so much discussion on the Web right now about rivercrabs and alpaca sheep.”

Cybernationalism is big in China, i.e., people on the Net who are very proud of their nation. There’s an anti-CNN site created by Chinese journalism students, to critique CNN’s errors in coverage. People resent foreigners criticizing their Internet. There are now Red Guard-like cyber-vigilantes. There are also paid informants on the Web. Cyber-police. Cyber-bonapartism, i.e., a strong centralized state using democratic means to make people feel more involved? Cyber-confucianism? Cyber-ocracy? She points to Isaac Mao who says we can’t have free speech until we have thinking, and thus he talks about “share-ism.”

Ultimately, we should be talking about off line institutions. Fair mechanisms, transparency, legal protection of free speech. Until you have that, Rebecca says, nothing much changes.

What does this mean for the global Internet? David Post, in Jefferson’s Moose, talks about the balance between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians (free speech vs. control). This debates rages in China now. The debate is “hampered by censorship and complicated by nationalism.” How do we support that debate, Rebecca asks. Between governments and citizens there’s now global layer of Web and IT services. How do we use this layer, in China and globally? Authoritarian governments may not be moved to democracy and freedom. If we don’t talk about this, we might all end up in the middle.

Q: This echoes the traditional Chinese leadership pattern of going out among the people. And different people in China use the Internet for different purposes. Elites vs, working class, etc.
A: Yes. The Net right now is an echo chamber for elites. If you want to know what the peasantry are thinking, the Internet is not the way to find out. But if you want know about the people who might be future leaders, the Internet is a good tool.

Q: Are there country-to-country discussion forums? And are they using The Onion Router?
A: Some do. Not a critical mass. And there are good-hearted attempts to “save” the Chinese. It’d be better not to be so paternalistic.

Q: Why don’t controversial bloggers post on hosts outside their country?
A: Because their audience would be too small. One guy I know posts the same posts to ten blogs and hope that not all of them are taken down. And the problem with circumvention tools is that you have to know what you want to know. It can be hard to know how much censorship there is if you’re within the system.

Q: Do the Chinese people want to be free? Russians tell you that freedom leads to conflict and misery.
A: What is freedom? There isn’t consensus in China about how much freedom vs. control. But how can you get consensus if you can’t have an uncensored debate about it? [Tags: ]

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