Networked Authoritarianism in Perspective

A short time ago, Rebecca MacKinnon wrote an excellent commentary on the Chinese government’s white paper on the Internet. In the government-published white paper, there was effusive praise for the Internet as a tool for social change under terms set by the party.

The important thing to understand is that the party will set the agenda of what is acceptable for Internet development, and the Internet will develop along those terms in China regardless of what others may say. From the party’s perspective, this is non-negotiable. Those who challenge this basic requirement, as did Google earlier this year, will be forced out, or will have to conform to those regulations.

The Internet white paper was the party’s way of saying:

  • Now we understand the Internet and its social ramifications
  • We do not believe it should be banned from China.
  • We believe that it should be controlled and managed in a direction which is suitable for China’s development under the leadership of the party.
  • We will not tolerate any deviance or interference, foreign or domestic, from these guidelines.

In the west, the Internet developed as a grass-roots tool of programmers and hackers, since it was based on several different technology protocols. For this reason, many in the west continue to think of the Internet as the ultimate anti-authoritarian tool. Those who look at the Internet from a political perspective and have their own agenda often emphasize this aspect of the Internet.

Before the Internet came to China, there was no unofficial media. This was why one of the first applications which took off in China was Tencent’s QQ, which was an instant messaging tool based on ICQ. Following this, games took off, led by Shanda. More recently, online video and twitter clones such as Sina’s Weibo have taken off.

It has taken some time for the party to realize that the Internet also offers an alternate, unofficial media, and is dangerous from the party perspective because it has the potential to let people spread information, and even more importantly, organize very quickly. It is this ability to organize quickly which represents the greatest threat to party rule, which is why huge amounts of funding have been directed to the online security apparatus. It is very clear that the party places special emphasis on real-time filtering of the Internet to prevent social disturbances from spreading quickly, and this is a large part of many companies’ operational costs.

From the party’s perspective, social change is necessary, and in some cases desirable, especially when it is directed at non-Chinese companies such as Foxconn and Honda. These high-profile, limited-scale events give the government negotiating leverage in dealing with non-Chinese entities, and directing social and economic policy. However, if they become widespread in society as a whole and spread out of control, there is a real danger to party authority. This is why all of these events have been small in scope, and have quickly died down after the issues were resolved.

This is a very sophisticated Chinese strategy which has the west, including individuals, investors and governments, over the barrel. On the one hand, many in the west hope that China will change and become a more open society. In fact, the party in China also knows that Chinese society must change and become more open, but it wants to set the terms and the agenda. Should investors go to China, which offers better returns than most other parts of the world, including the west? Or should they obey their consciences, and stay out of China? Looking at things now, I would say that most are more interested in their investment portfolios than their consciences.

As for those who exercise their consciences, there is another challenge. Are they for change from within the system, or do they support change from outside the system? Change from within the system means that there must be dialogue with the ruling party. History has shown us that for long stretches of time this dialogue will not bear fruit, and will be open to widespread criticism in the west, which is always demanding fast results and change in China. Or will the China critics push forward a hard line, that there can be no compromise with the party, and a new substitute must be found?

This lack of a viable substitute is what has prevented change in China. It’s easy to criticize the party on multiple issues; it’s much harder to find a better solution.

So far, I have not found anyone in the west take a clear stand on this crucial issue, except for Google, which moved its search engine operations to Hong Kong earlier this year.

“Exactly what is the attitude of the west with regard to change in China?”

This lack of open, honest dialogue on the key issue of meaningful strategy with China is what prevents many western companies from moving forward with China.

Unless western companies, the public and their governments reach some kind of consensus on what they support, and what their position on change in China is, there will always be misunderstandings and disappointments for the west in China.

4 Responses to “Networked Authoritarianism in Perspective”

  1. Elliott Ng says:

    Good commentary on Rebecca’s piece. So what is the indicated action for Western companies? Face reality on the tough choices they have to make when entering China? Avoid sensitive industries? The other point you are making is that China has the ability to play out a very sophisticated strategy…and yet is often clumsy in their approach as well.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this.

  2. I don’t think that there is a simple answer; their executive management teams and boards will have to decide.

    If anything, I would just say that it’s time for western companies and boards to understand the party, its culture and how it operates, because one way or another, as long as they are in China, they will have to deal with it. And they should deal with it in a very objective, almost cold way, without any ideological or political agenda, but as a real and complex organization out to protect what it perceives to be China’s best interests.

    In other words, shelve the political rhetoric which demonizes it so much in the western political media.

    Another issue is the western practice of rotating senior executives in and out of China among MNCs. As much as possible, people who have China experience and a proven track record should be kept in China. It’s just too important a market.

  3. kuolai shu says:

    Quote: …except for Google, which moved its search engine operations to Hong Kong earlier this year…. Unquote

    I support Google that stands for its value and takes action. However, it is a very lousy move to Hong Kong, still a China (the party) territoty politically with western living and culture.

    The best move, yes the best and no others, is to Taiwan, a place Mandarin is spoken and politically debatable; a place Internet access is free of sensorship, a place honoring western democracy.

  4. […] on the government’s white paper on the Internet, the government’s Ministry of Culture is coming out with a slew of regulations aimed at […]