Posts tagged: internet freedom

This is Not Your Daddy’s China – Or Is It?

By , November 24, 2011

Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Rebecca MacKinnon do not seem to have a lot in common: one is a young, blonde woman born in 1960s America and focused on internet freedom; the other is an older, grayed man born in pre-war Poland who might not really know what a blog is let alone a “microblog.”

But at last week’s China Town Hall event – sponsored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) and hosted by Fordham Law School – the general gist of each speaker’s message boiled down to the same point: don’t expect China to follow historical trends; this is a different time, a different place, a different beast and the U.S. needs to quickly recognize this reality.

Brzezinski on China: China is Not Nazi Germany

Brzezinski started the live webcast portion (watch the webcast here) with a very brief synopsis of his role in helping to normalize relations with China during the Carter administration.  The briefness of this interlude proved to be a pity and not just because the question and answer portion ended up being sort of lacking.

The history of U.S.-China relations after Nixon’s impeachment remains rather unknown to many.  In fact, I would venture to guess that few understand that Nixon’s 1972 visit to China did not normalize relations; normalization was left for another day, and as Brzezinski explained at the China Town Hall, President Ford didn’t believe that he had the mandate to transfer diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.  As a result of what appeared to be the U.S.’ waffling, relations between the U.S. and China worsened.  However, President Carter’s election in 1976 provided for a new chance at dialogue and with the help of Brzezinski, the U.S. and China eventually normalized relations in 1979 (Prof. Jerome Cohen wrote an interesting essay on the role of Ted Kennedy in normalizing relations – see here).

For the remainder of the webcast – the Q &A portion – Brzezinski proved to be more of a sphinx, giving short,

Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter - 1979

somewhat cryptic answers to most of the questions.  As a result, there was plenty of time for question.  Perhaps it was a result of the fact that on the same day as the Town Hall – November 16 – President Obama was in Australia announcing the establishment of the U.S. base in that country or perhaps it is what is on most people’s mind, but most of the questions of the night focused upon China’s military ambitions and the U.S.’ appropriate military role in Asia.

For Brzezinski, the U.S.’ current posture toward Beijing – one where China is viewed as a threat – is troubling.  According to Brzezinski the U.S. is “pre-judging” the relationship: the U.S. has already determined that China will be an aggressive power and we must develop and deepen our alliances with other countries.  But we don’t know if that is true – we don’t know that China is or will be a Nazi Germany; while our guard should be up, we should be open to maintaining a good relationship with China and not isolate it from the rest of Asia.

Brzezinski made an interesting point and supported his argument that China is not as much of threat as we think it is with evidence – China’s military is light years away from being able to compete with ours and China maintains an ambivalent relationship with both Russia and Iran.

But Brzezinski didn’t address some of the very real pressures on the Chinese government to increase its saber-rattling: the military still maintains an extremely powerful role in running the Chinese government and to a large extent, often runs itself; China has become more bellicose in terms of its ability to control portions of the South China Sea; and the lack of communication between the U.S. and Chinese militaries can allow for a small incident to rapidly escalate into a full-blown international one.

In response to one question about rising nationalism in China, Brzezinski pretty much brushed it off (although he did make the important point that the U.S. is guilty of it too vis-à-vis China).  While he recognized that it could be a legitimate concern, this nationalism has not been accompanied by anti-American sentiment.  This just seemed shocking to me. And, as someone who was in China soon after the U.S.’ accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, plain wrong.  Anti-American sentiment at that time was running high, enflamed by the Chinese media and communicated by many of the Chinese students I met on the Peking University campus that summer and early fall.  The anti-American sentiment quickly died down after the U.S. agreed to China’s accession to the W.T.O. in November 1999 but there have been other flare-ups since then.

While Brzezinski is right to state that our approach to China shouldn’t necessarily be guided by outdated models of Nazi Germany or even the Cold War, there are some aspects of China’s rise that precisely because they are different from what we have seen in the past, should cause us to be more on guard.

Rebecca MacKinnon – China’s Internet is Not Egypt’s Internet; It’s A Lot Worse

Sites That Don't Make it Through the Great Firewall

Certainly for Rebecca MacKinnon, the live local speaker at the Fordham Law School event, China’s increased nationalism is something on her mind, especially as it pertains to the internet.

It’s Not All About the Great Fire Wall

MacKinnon started her extremely enlightening talk on internet freedom in China by tearing down some American misconceptions.  For most Americans, there is this belief that the “Great Fire Wall” of China is what is preventing internet freedom in China.  It is this firewall that completely blocks out websites like Facebook, Twitter, and although not mentioned by MacKinnon herself, China Law & Policy, from being accessible in China.  U.S. policy toward internet freedom in China, and the money spent on such efforts, has largely – and mistakenly in MacKinnon’s view – been exclusively directed toward tearing down this firewall; finding ways for activists to circumvent the wall by accessing the internet through a non-China based virtual private network (VPN).

But the Great Fire Wall of China is only one layer in the Chinese government’s web of online censorship.  What are more damaging to internet freedom are the vast layers of censorship that occur on the Chinese side of the Great Fire Wall.

Internet Companies Do the Government’s Censoring

Because of the Great Fire Wall, social networking, blogging and microblogging is dominated exclusively by Chinese companies.  Like in America, Chinese citizens can post their thoughts to the internet and communicate with other citizens.  But unlike in America, anything that gets too political will be taken down by the hosting company.  Through various cyber laws and regulations it is these internet companies – like Baidu and Alibaba – that carry out the government’s censorship of the internet.

If these companies don’t follow the weekly guidance on what content must be taken down, their licenses to run an

Not Just the Police Watching You....

internet company could be revoked, putting them out of business.  Thus, under Chinese law, the government outsources its censorship: it issues directives but the internet companies are the ones that are liable if specific content makes it through.

Those companies who do their job well don’t just stay in business, but are rewarded for their vigilant censorship.  Every year, the Chinese government awards those internet companies who did the best job censoring a “Self Discipline Award.”  And the government is not being ironic.

Because censorship does take time and because the guidance on what content must be removed is an ever moving target, some things do make it past the censors.  MacKinnon provided a recent example: the July 2011 Wenzhou train collision.  Immediately after the crash, the government issued a statement saying that a train in Wenzhou was struck by lightning.  However, with smart phones, many bystanders quickly posted pictures of a train on its side, people obviously injured by something other than lightening, quickly debunking the government’s initial response.  That use of the internet but the general public resulted in the government being held accountable and having to report the truth.

But for MacKinnon, these types of opportunities are largely reserved for natural disasters or sudden accidents – things that happen so suddenly that the government hasn’t issued an order to the internet companies about whether such content should be removed.

What’s Not Censored?  Nationalism and the 50 Cent Party

MacKinnon also made an interesting point about the inequities of censorship in China.  It would be one thing if all political speech was censored in China, but it is not.  Instead, only that speech that could potentially harm the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is censored; speech glorifying the CCP is provided free reign.

In fact, pro-Chinese government and pro-CCP speech is often ghost-written by the 50 Cent Party, government-hired internet commentators who get paid to post positive content about the Chinese government and the CCP.  So while the government is able to stamp out anti-CCP thoughts, it is also able to bolster its own image on the internet.

Make No Mistake, China is Not Egypt

For those who think that the Arab Spring is coming to a city in China sometime soon, MacKinnon’s message was clear: oh hell no.  With such tight controls over the internet, there is no way that a dinner party, let alone a revolution, could be organized through social media like it partially was in Tunisia and Egypt.  In the Middle East, there is enough space on the internet to meet like minded people and organize events.  In China, that space does not exist as the government maintains a tight grip on speech.

MacKinnon offered one example of the danger in organizing events through the internet or related to free speech on the internet.  In 2005, a group of Chinese bloggers organized a national conference in China about blogging – sort of like a NetRoots Nation here in the United States.  It gives a chance for bloggers who have communicated virtually to meet each other and provides an opportunity to learn to become a better blogger.

The conference was held again in 2006 and started to become an annual event.  Many bloggers began to wonder, is the internet a “special political zone” in the way that Shenzhen was a “special economic zone” in the 1980s?  The answer turned out to be no.  The last conference was held in 2009; in 2010, authorities went to the leaders of the conference and instructed them not to hold another conference.

Will The Chinese Internet Ever Be Free?

For MacKinnon change rests almost exclusively in the hands of the CEOs of China’s internet companies.  Right now, they have a good deal.  They have an exclusive monopoly on the internet.  Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, doesn’t have to worry about competition from Twitter, and Renren, the major social networking site, doesn’t have to ever think about losing costumers to Facebook.  In exchange for such exclusivity, what’s a little censorship between friends?

But MacKinnon wonders if there will come a point where censorship becomes economically too costly for these companies.  If it does, then there could be a change.  What would cause that change?  That seems unclear.  In 2009, because of rioting in the predominately Muslim autonomous region of Xinjiang, the Chinese government took the drastic step of completely shutting down the internet in Xinjiang.  That shutdown didn’t last for a few days or a week.  That shutdown lasted for almost a year.  This wasn’t just an inconvenience; it harmed the local and regional economy.  But even this type of drastic action still hasn’t changed any of the internet companies’ approaches to censorship.  But perhaps if more of these outages happen or happen in a more populous location, Chinese internet companies might start wondering if aligning themselves with the Chinese government is really worth it.

As of right now, MacKinnon believes that the Chinese government has found a way to maintain its “Networked Authoritarianism.”   Chinese leaders at all levels use the internet to get their message out and there are efforts to have broadband reach all areas of China; this is not a government necessarily afraid of the internet; on some level, it has established the structure in place that allows it to use it to its advantages without any of the danger of dissent.  On some level, the Chinese government makes a mockery of the generally accepted idea that the internet is perhaps one of the most democratizing tools every created.

Instead, the Chinese government provides a model for other countries on how authoritarianism can in fact survive the internet.  The stories of Tunisia and Egypt do not hold true for China.

But as MacKinnon closed out her talk, just when you think you know what will happen in China, something surprises you.

Those interested in learning more about internet freedom should check out MacKinnon’s amazing blog RConversation or pick up her forthcoming book – Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom – when it hits stores at the end of January 2012.

NYC Event – Fifth Annual China Town Hall – At Fordham Law School – Nov. 16

By , November 13, 2011

Since 2007, the National Committee for US-China Relations (NCUCR) has hosted a “China Town Hall,” a national day of awareness of the U.S.’ relationship with China.  As part of this Town Hall, the NCUCR organizes events throughout the country, hosts a webchat with a prominent China person (last year was US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman), and encourages the local events to invite their own local guest speaker for a live conversation.

For the 2011 China Town Hall, NCUCR will be hosting a webchat with President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.  Although it was President Nixon who was the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it was under President Carter that relations with the PRC were normalized and recognition of the Republic of China (Taiwan) was cut.  Dr. Brzezinski was in the middle of all these decisions.  More recently, Dr. Brzezinski has commented on the US-China relationship in a January 2011 N.Y. Times op-ed (see criticism of his opinion here).

Where to watch the China Town Hall? In the New York City area, this year’s China Town Hall will be hosted by

Prof. Rebecca MacKinnon

Fordham Law School, with the local guest none other than internet freedom guru Rebecca MacKinnon.  Now, I have never seen Prof. MacKinnon speak before, but in following her blog and her twitter feed, I have a feeling her talk is not to be missed.

BUT for the Fordham event, you NEED to RSVP – the event is free but RSVP is required.  Please RSVP here: http://cthnyc.eventbrite.com

China Town Hall
Fordham Law School
McNally Auditorium – 140 West 62nd Street, New York, NY
Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011
6:45 – 9 pm

6:45 p.m.  Doors Open
7:00 p.m.  Webchat with Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski
7:45 p.m.  Live Talk with Prof. Rebecca MacKinnon
8:30 p.m.  Q&A with Prof. MacKinnon

Remember to RSVP here: http://cthnyc.eventbrite.com

For a listing of China Town Hall Events in your neighborhood, click here: http://www.ncuscr.org/cth

The NY Times Overreacts to U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan

By , February 2, 2010

In yesterday’s New York Times, Helene Cooper argued that the Obama Administration’s recent announcement of over $6 billion in arms sales to Taiwan shows a “new toughness” toward Beijing and perhaps even a “fundamentally new direction” in the Administration’s China policy.  But, by focusing on the arms sales, Ms. Cooper overemphasizes the event.  U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are far from novel or tough, and some may argue, periodically required under U.S. law.

Similarly, Beijing’s angry reaction was predictable.  In fact, for each prior Administration’s arms sales to Taiwan, the Chinese government has responded in much the same way: postponement of military-to-military meetings, issue formal protests with U.S. officials, and saber-rattling for the domestic consumption.  However, Beijing’s recent threat of sanctions against U.S. companies involved with the arms sales is new and serious.  But this is more a reflection of China’s growing confidence and less a reflection of a changed or “tough” U.S. policy toward China.

Why Does China Care so Much about Taiwan?  Isn’t it a Separate Country?

Nope, scrap that vision from your mind.  Taiwan is not a separate country, at least not in the eyes of the Chinese, Taiwanese or U.S. governments.   The People’s Republic of China (a.k.a. the mainland) views Taiwan (a.k.a. “The Republic of China”) as a renegade province and any relations between Taiwan and other countries is viewed as interference in the mainland’s domestic affairs.  While Taiwan has largely developed as an independent society, it agrees with the mainland’s assessment that there is only “one China.”  The Taiwanese government has never called for independence and the Kuo Min Tang party (pronounced Gwo min-dang and a.k.a. “the Nationalists” or KMT), which has ruled Taiwan for most of Taiwan’s separate existence, also espouses the view of “one China” and that eventually, the mainland and Taiwan will reunite.  The difference is who rules this reunited China.  For Taiwan, it’s the KMT; for the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

All of this stems from World War II.  After the War ended in 1945, the KMT and the CCP resumed their civil war, a civil war that was put on hold to fight the Japanese invasion from 1937 to 1945.  By 1949, the CCP’s victory was certain and the KMT government fled to the province of Taiwan to continue the Republic of China.

China DailyThus began the baffling existence of two Chinas – the communist People’s Republic of China on the mainland and the KMT’s Republic of China on Taiwan.  Each China claimed that it was the “official” and “rightful” China and the other a mere province; each forced the international community to recognize only one China – either China on the mainland or China on Taiwan – hence the birth of the “one China” policy.

The U.S. continued to ally itself with the KMT and the Republic of China, recognizing Taiwan as the official China and all but denying the existence of the mainland.  But starting in 1972, with President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the mainland, relations between the U.S. and the PRC began to improve and in 1979, the U.S. switched recognition of China from Taiwan to the mainland.

Obama’s Arms Sales to Taiwan Is Par for the Course in U.S.-China Relations

The Obama Administration’s recent announcement of arms sales to Taiwan follows a long line of arms sales by the U.S.  Almost every president since 1978 has sold arms to Taiwan.  In fact, the U.S., under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), is required to sell defensive arms to Taiwan.  In 1979, after changing recognition to mainland China, the U.S. did not want to leave its former ally completely open to attack or takeover.  As a result, Congress passed the TRA.

The TRA authorizes quasi-diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Taiwan.  For example, instead of having an official embassy on Taiwan, the TRA allows for the “American Institute in Taiwan.”  Additionally, and more importantly, the TRA established the U.S.’ responsibility toward Taiwan if it is threatened.  At issue here is the TRA’s requirement that the U.S. periodically sell defensive arms to Taiwan.

In announcing arms sales to Taiwan, the Obama Administration is merely following its obligations under the TRA.  green peopleAdditionally, the Obama Administration has not acquiesced to Taiwan’s request for F-16s.  During the George W. Bush Administration, Taiwan repeatedly requested the purchase of F-16s.  Similarly, Taiwan put out feelers with the Obama Administration to see if there was a possibility that they could purchase F-16s.  Again, Taiwan was told not to put in a formal request for F-16s.

The F-16s are a big issue since they are not “defensive” arms; Beijing would very much view a sale of F-16s to Taiwan as going a bit too far.  But Obama’s package to Taiwan merely includes the usual: Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, mine-hunting ships and information technology.

If the Obama Administration wanted to use the Taiwan arms sales requirement to “toughen” its stance to Beijing as the New York Times claims it has, the Administration would have acquiesced to Taiwan’s request for F-16s.  Instead, it merely sold similar arms to Taiwan that President George W. Bush sold in 2008.

This is not to say that the Obama Administration does not have a strong China policy.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent policy speech on internet freedom was a robust critique of countries like China that censor their internet and partake in cyberhacking.  This follows President Obama’s strong and public criticism of internet censorship while in China this past November.  The New York Times would have done better to focus its argument on the Administration’s novel and forceful rhetoric on internet freedom vis-à-vis China.

Don’t Take Financial Advice from Tom Friedman

By , January 24, 2010
Thomas Friedman, Shorting the CCP

Thomas Friedman

It is dangerous to use financial analogies to describe a non-financial event; the comparison usually misses the mark and often overly simplifies a complex issue.  Thomas Friedman fell into this trap last week when he recommended short selling the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in his op-ed.  In attempting to predict the CCP’s fall, Friedman failed to do his due diligence and realize that like most things in China, it’s not all black and white.

First, the metaphor of “shorting” non-financial products has to stop.  Or at the very least be explained.   For readers of this blog and Friedman’s column who are not day-traders, “shorting” is a specific financial term.  When you “short” a stock, you borrow shares of the stock from a third party and sell these borrowed shares on the assumption that the price will decline in the near future.  When the stock is trading lower, you purchase it and return the shares borrowed, thus making a profit.   In essence, “shorting” implies that the product is presently overvalued and the value will decrease in the near future.

While you can’t actually “short” a country or a ruling party, Friedman uses the analogy to imply that the CCP is currently overvalued and its value, or in this case its power, will eventually decline.  According to Friedman, the CCP’s power will decrease because of its insistence on suppressing the Chinese public’s freedom to information, specifically over the internet.  For Friedman, this pits two different segments of Chinese society against each other: “Command China” which he defines as “traditional state-owned enterprises” and other extensions of the CCP and “Network China” which is made up of “highly entrepreneurial” companies that feed off of the creative energy of a free internet.

In drawing this distinction, Friedman paints with too wide a brush.  If the Chinese business world could easily be divided into decrepit, state-owned industries run by the Party and vibrant, Silicon Valley-like companies that are independent of the Party, the CCP’s demise likely would have already occurred.

Network China is not as independent of the CCP as Friedman makes it out to be.  A company’s success in China, even a

Shorting the CCP?

Shorting the CCP?

small technology company, is often dependent on the owners’ connections with government officials.  The companies of Network China are not outsiders to the system; they are very much insiders and largely profit from good relations with the CCP.  Take for example Baidu, China’s homegrown search engine.  Although Google’s search engine is at least as good as, if not better than Baidu’s, due to Baidu’s close relations with the government, it has a much larger share of the Chinese market.  Government and Party connections are important assets on a company’s balance sheet and, at times, are instrumental to a company’s success.  The companies of Network China continue to profit from their connections; it is unlikely that they will be the ones to seek change.

Furthermore, Command China and Network China are inextricably linked.  The Chinese banks that provide loans to the start-up companies of Network China are state-run and members of Friedman’s Command China.  When it comes to loaning money, the Chinese leadership has more than a bully pulpit; it can out right force its banks to provide these loans, as it did for much of 2009 while banks in other parts of the world constricted their lending.  In many ways, the government’s control of the state-run banks has been a boon for Network China.  Why change it?

The Chinese government’s increasing censorship of the internet is troubling, and not just for those of us abroad.  The Chinese people themselves have been in an uproar about Google’s threat to leave China and realize the damage that a censored internet can have on their development.  Just don’t expect change to come from Friedman’s Network China; these companies are already co-opted by the system.  If change is to come, expect it to come from average Chinese netizens and expect it to be a long process; not exactly ideal for short selling.

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