September 30, 2005

UPDATE: China Repression with American Technology–On Smart Mobs, BBS, and SMS

Having read through Rconversation’s latest post, this much is clear: The Chinese government’s attempts at pervasive command and control are NOT solely aimed at news organizations and bloggers. The government is out to monitor and, where “necessary,” short-circuit the most basic everyday online communications between individuals and groups (“China: Fear of Smartmobs”; bolds are mine throughout this post):

China’s latest efforts to control online news are being sold to the Chinese public by the Chinese media as an effort to protect innocent citizens from swindlers, pornographers, and rumor-mongerers. But everybody in China I’ve been communicating with over the past 12 hours thinks the real reason has to do with fear of … smartmobs.

….. Chinese news reports make it clear that the regulations include internet bulletin boards (BBS, as they’re known in China) and SMS mobile text messaging. Should the regime be nervous about these technologies? You bet. After all, just a short flight away from Beijing in Seoul, South Korea sits a President who was elected thanks to a grassroots youth political movement galvanized by the online citizens’ media news site OhMyNews, but which couldn’t have been successful without the mobilizing power (of) chatrooms and SMS text messaging.

….. the number of forbidden content-categories has been expanded from 9 to 11, and all of those new categories relate to people’s ability to organize online.

….. in China, the internet bulletin boards and chatrooms are more powerful than blogs. Why? One big reason, he says, is because professional journalists use internet bulletin boards as a place to anonymously post stories their editors won’t publish because they were too politically sensitive. Putting them on a blog leaves the individual too exposed and too potentially traceable. So Chinese who want to find alternative news know that the BBS are where they’re most likely to find it.

….. all the independent bloggers were required to register their identities earlier this year. So from the government’s perspective the blogs have been sufficiently neutered. The BBS and SMS are what they fear.

….. The list of content that online news sites are not allowed to report includes “state secrets.” ….. people often find themselves in possession of documents (handed to them by officials) which are not marked anywhere as classified – but then they are busted for possession of them later. Charges of reporting state secrets could also be levied in this manner – as an excuse to nail somebody. This tactic has been used against plenty of Chinese conventional newspaper journalists in the past. We are simply reminded that online news organizations cannot escape. It could be extremely easy for a journalist to be nailed for posting “state secrets” on a BBS without knowing he or she had done so.

….. Now, before you argue that flashmobs aided by BBS and SMS may still ultimately prevail and bring democracy to China in the longer term, think again. It’s going to take a lot more than that. The Chinese Communist Party has learned to control the internet not perfectly, but well enough: Nascent opposition groups have been successfully prevented from using the internet to grow into any kind of national movement. Outside the Communist Party, there’s currently no viable alternative group of people capable of governing China. If an altermative is going to emerge from anywhere it will likely be from within the party itself.

The idea that American technology companies are willing participants in this repression is nauseating. CNBC’s Larry Kudlow notes the story (” Shame on You Yahoo!”), and laments its under-the-radar status.

Chicago Boyz’s Lexington Green makes some excellent points (“The Architecture of Repression”):

Too often libertarians defend this collaboration with tyranny because they apparently believe either that (1) private businesses should be allowed to do anything which is profitable, or (2) technology is per se liberating and that the Chinese government’s attempt to be repressive will inevitably be futile. The first is a moral judgment I disagree with, the second is a prediction based on historical evidence which I also disagree with.

Neither of these rationales can justify American firms creating and installing for a profit what Kopel accurately calls the “architecture of repression.”

If Ma Bell had installed phones in Russia during the Cold War, and in the process helped the KGB wiretap the Russian people to round up dissidents, there would have been howls of anger. What is happening now is no different.

China today is not as bad as the USSR was, and we do not want or need a new Cold War against China. But when the Chinese government behaves oppressively Americans should not make excuses for it, or worse, profit from it. They should complain about it, loudly and publicly. If this embarrasses the Chinese government, good. When someone does reprehensible things, public disgrace may be a way to stop or limit the conduct. If this means that the Chinese will retailiate in some way, so be it.

Assisting the Chinese Government to create a state-of-the-art tyranny does not hasten the day when China will be a “normal” country which allows basic human rights like free political speech. Establishing principles and insisting that they be met will work much better.

There are very early signs that people are becoming convinced that this is more than a little important. But Lexington Green theorizes, in my opinion accurately, that there is a great deal of vested interest on both sides of the political aisle in continuing to ignore the problem:

Why this is not provoking more outrage is an interesting question. Business-minded Republicans don’t want to do anything which will risk trade with China. Why liberals say little about such bad behavior is less obvious. Possibly it is simply that opposing China in any way is a position which is associated with the hawkish wing of the GOP….

I disagree with Green in this sense: the lack of liberal objections to China’s repression is not at all “less obvious.” Liberals have an 80-year track record, dating back to before Pullitzer Prize-winning Stalin propagandist Walter Duranty, of ignoring and excusing Communist murder and repression (see: Fidel Castro). Why would these fourth-generation leopards change their spots now? Unfortunately, the better hope for action is on the right side of the aisle, but it would mean risking the wrath of not only the American technology sellouts, but also companies like WalMart and Home Depot that seem to have quietly adopted “China-first” purchasing policies over the past decade.
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Previous posts:
- China Crackdown Continues: First Blogs, Now Internet News and Web Sites
- I Do Not “Yahoo!” Update: WaPo Weighs In
- I Do Not “Yahoo!” Follow-up
- I Do Not (and Will Not) Yahoo!
- The Bull in Oppressive China’s Shopping

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