China and Freedoms

Here is an amazing 90 minute panel about China and Internet freedoms in anticipation of Clinton’s speech.  Video streaming and mp3 download.

Hilary Clinton gave a groundbreaking speech on Internet censorship a few days ago.  Well worth reading in its entirety. A data point:

Now, these examples of progress can be replicated in the lives of the billion people at the bottom of the world’s economic ladder. In many cases, the internet, mobile phones, and other connection technologies can do for economic growth what the Green Revolution did for agriculture. You can now generate significant yields from very modest inputs. And one World Bank study found that in a typical developing country, a 10 percent increase in the penetration rate for mobile phones led to an almost 1 percent increase in per capita GDP. To just put this into context, for India, that would translate into almost $10 billion a year.

Nice anecdotes to support her claim:

The final freedom, one that was probably inherent in what both President and Mrs. Roosevelt thought about and wrote about all those years ago, is one that flows from the four I’ve already mentioned: the freedom to connect – the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate. Once you’re on the internet, you don’t need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society.

The largest public response to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai was launched by a 13-year-old boy. He used social networks to organize blood drives and a massive interfaith book of condolence. In Colombia, an unemployed engineer brought together more than 12 million people in 190 cities around the world to demonstrate against the FARC terrorist movement. The protests were the largest antiterrorist demonstrations in history. And in the weeks that followed, the FARC saw more demobilizations and desertions than it had during a decade of military action. And in Mexico, a single email from a private citizen who was fed up with drug-related violence snowballed into huge demonstrations in all of the country’s 32 states. In Mexico City alone, 150,000 people took to the streets in protest. So the internet can help humanity push back against those who promote violence and crime and extremism.

In Iran and Moldova and other countries, online organizing has been a critical tool for advancing democracy and enabling citizens to protest suspicious election results. And even in established democracies like the United States, we’ve seen the power of these tools to change history. Some of you may still remember the 2008 presidential election here. (Laughter.)

One irony of the speech is that in her legitimate point about how Internet freedom helps the economy, she extols commercial speech (which a lot of progressives complained about in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent case on campaign finance reform.

To use market terminology, a publicly listed company in Tunisia or Vietnam that operates in an environment of censorship will always trade at a discount relative to an identical firm in a free society. If corporate decision makers don’t have access to global sources of news and information, investors will have less confidence in their decisions over the long term. Countries that censor news and information must recognize that from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech. If businesses in your nations are denied access to either type of information, it will inevitably impact on growth.

  James Fallows comments about how the speech groups China with an odd assortment of countries:

Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Egypt — this is not the grouping of countries that the Chinese government, in its recent sense of rise to superpower status, is used to being lumped with. Compared to the US as a financial power, OK; overtaking Japan in economic size, yes; being a crucial player in environmental negotiations… all that is one thing. Bracketed in the same sentence with Tunisia and Uzbekistan is different. Sentences like this don’t appear in formal, big-deal SecState addresses by accident.

In an article about Hilary Clinton’s ground-breaking speech,  we see this amazing exchange between readers.  Here is the original comment by a Chinese apologist:

Americans should realize that First Amendment does not apply to China. It is a whole different culture, different system and I think Americans should respect that. This is like imposing your values on a group of people who needs to be governed in a different way. If Americans have learned anything in the last century, it is to stop interfering with other cultures. Period.

(brilliant response from another reader – one of my alltime faves)

Karen Zhou (from page 1), I am all too familiar with the kind of knee-jerk ignorant "patriotism" you cling to. I am Chinese-American, and during my time in college (I recently graduated), I noticed that a good number of my mainland Chinese colleagues would gripe about Internet censorship while vacationing back home (they would, of course, try to climb the Great Firewall). Yet when they returned to the US for classes, they would go nuts if anyone–especially Chinese–dared to speak ill of China’s lack of freedom in this or that area. They would harangue the US, deriding it as imperialist with terms reminiscent of Maoist ‘struggle’ sessions.

Karen, since I can tell from your last name that you are probably of the mainland, let me give you some news: You are the cream of the crop. You’ve made it overseas. You understand English. Please, don’t try to paternalistically speak for the hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese who still live in the mainland and don’t enjoy the freedoms you do in Canada. You probably have more in common with the average Canadian than the average factory worker or farmer in China who actually has legitimate grievances to air against the government.

Your argument is specious in another respect. Chinese folks the likes of you love to lecture about how "Chinese culture" is supposedly based upon uniformity of belief. Well, let’s see. If that’s the case, then have the people in Taiwan been "violating" Chinese culture? After all, Taiwan has preserved traditional Chinese culture far more than the mainland has (think Cultural Revolution). How about Hong Kong? Upon reverting to China, the mainland granted them a "Basic Law" giving them relative freedom of speech. So is HK also somehow "un-Chinese"? How about Chinese communities abroad in the Americas and in Europe? You and I live in Western nations and we both probably identify with a local Chinese community. Now, the Chinese government claims that if it were to allow Internet freedom, then the Chinese people would fall into instability and disorder. Let me ask you: Of all the challenges we Chinese face in the West, when was the last time your Chinese community was torn apart by Internet freedom? Hmm? Are your Chinese friends feeling helpless because they can’t cope with Internet freedom?

You write that allowing Internet freedom "is like imposing your values on a group of people who needs to be governed in a different way." Let me ask you: Where did the ideology that underlies the CCP originate from? You know, Marxism-Leninism? I’m pretty well-versed in Chinese history, and I just don’t think we made that crock up! And if you say that Chinese have their own unique way of governance, then why haven’t Chinese like you been calling for a restoration of the dynastic system? That was our unique way of governing ourselves for oh, I don’t know, 5,000 years–until a bunch of middle-class populists (Mao & Co.) decided that China ought to violently throw out its political system and institute one conceived of by..Germans! Very original, eh? (Note: If you didn’t get the sarcasm, I don’t actually advocate returning to being ruled by emperors. But you should!)

What I discovered in college, Karen, was that Chinese who think like you actually have some sort of an "inferiority country complex." You guys are reluctant to criticize the government of your motherland because of one or a combination of four main factors. One, the government probably helped you and your family become successful. That’s why you can afford to come overseas and "represent" the masses–you don’t want to bite the hand that fed you. Two, you somehow think that if you criticize the CCP less, foreigners will follow. Three, you were educated in China, and therefore didn’t have access to a lot of censored material people elsewhere have that reflects poorly upon the CCP. Four, you are ashamed of certain aspects of China’s development and think that admitting them to Westerners would bring shame on China as a nation. (As if Westerners didn’t already know!)

None of these reasons, however, are justifiable excuses for being knee-jerk nationalistic. When I studied abroad in China, I did not go there with the sort of national arrogance that many "patriotic" mainland Chinese tend to have here in America. I made a distinction between the US government and US society. I was not afraid to discuss the respective shortcomings–and strengths–of both entities. People like you, however, conflate the two, and therein lies great danger. Karen, we Chinese have much to be proud of in our traditional culture and values. But appreciating Chinese culture need not, and is not, equivalent to a need to blindly defend the Chinese government at all costs, as if it were representative of the Chinese people (not). That is a lie perpetuated by the Chinese government, and it is really quite sad that otherwise educated Chinese like you have eagerly bought into it. Go talk with some real netizens in China!




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