Sat, Dec 14, 2002 - Page 9 News List

China's "Great Internet Firewall"

The government has largely succeeding in turning technological advances that strengthen society into tools that strengthen the state

By Daniel Lynch

All of this suggests that China might evolve into the kind of society whose members spend so much time and money on conspicuous consumption and diversionary entertainment that they lack the psychic energy to reflect upon the issues of freedom, equality, religion and human rights. Problems fester in such a society, but don't necessarily explode. As long as the middle class supports state repression, order can be upheld.

The hope for more liberal democratic change in China seems to lie in a conflict between the rising middle class, rallying on both its own behalf and that of the poor, and the authoritarian state. Journalists, intellectuals and entrepreneurs reportedly chafe at government efforts to block access to overseas search engines; one day they might demand freedom of speech more generally. But nowadays most members of the middle class seem content to exchange complacency for economic growth. If they become unhappy, they can always console themselves with a pirated DVD.

Some groups, nonetheless, are fighting for the global freedom of the Internet. One Chinese Internet hacker group, called "Hacktivismo," is researching the development of a technology called "Six-Four" (named after the date of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre) that would allow Chinese netizens to use the Internet to communicate free from government observation and thus visit banned Web sites safely. But even in a best-case scenario, these technologies won't be available for many months, if not years, and few people in China are likely to have the desire or ability to use them.

Sadly, China's government has demonstrated amazing adeptness at controlling the Internet in the face of daunting technological challenges -- at least to the point of preventing a hard core of sensitive subjects from being discussed openly. This situation will not change inevitably. Those who assert that China is on the wrong side of history in its communication policies -- and that the Internet means eventual democratization -- ought to temper their optimism. In China, history often takes a very long time.

Daniel Lynch is assistant professor of international relations at the University of Southern California and author of After the Propaganda State: Media, Politics, and `Thought Work' in Reformed China.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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