The 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square was big news worldwide last June. Except, unfortunately, in China, where the prodemocracy protests and subsequent government massacre actually took place. There, domestic media muted the commemoration. And Chinese turning to the World Wide Web for a global perspective were likely stymied, too — especially if they turned to Google, which was widely blocked.
Beijing’s quest to control the search engine is just the latest episode of an ongoing saga: Previous censorship issues led Google to move its search operations to Hong Kong in 2010.
But blocking — as well as strategically deploying — the Web isn’t just a domestic dynamic, but also an extension of China’s foreign policy, which is the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center’s “Great Decisions” dialogue.
It’s also among the issues likely to come up next Wednesday when Ben Blink, senior public policy analyst at Google, speaks at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. His talk, “Google: Freedom and Power in the Digital Age,” is intended to address the need for a more open Internet, Blink said in an interview. Filtering and censorship technology is “censorship 1.0,” said Blink. “Censorship 2.0” is criminalizing certain speech, regulating bloggers or citizen journalists, and twisting well-intended laws on issues like child safety and national security in order to restrict speech.
The Web, Blink said, “has given people all over the world unprecedented power to share opinions, ideas and information, which has really shifted the dynamic between citizens and their leaders. But nearly a third of people live in countries where there is substantial and pervasive filtering of the Web. And governments are doing more and more to regain power over that information.”
China, for instance, which has long sought to staunch news narratives challenging the government, appears to have ramped up its press suppression, according to Bob Dietz, coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalist’s Asia Program. Via e-mail from Hong Kong, Dietz observed that “In the long run, we have seen cycles of media freedom in China. Under the Xi [Jinping] government we’re seeing an intense effort to curtail media, and this one looks like it might last a while.”
The State Department documented similar dynamics in its 2013 Human Rights Report. China, which it calls an authoritarian state, “implemented new measures to control and censor the Internet and particularly targeted bloggers with large numbers of followers, leading some to close online accounts.”
The crackdown’s endurance may be partly due to observing the disunion of the Soviet Union, according to Douglas H. Paal, vice president for studies at the Brookings Institution.
“China doesn’t think of itself as a Soviet-style empire, but it does know that it has, in remote regions, populations that if given the choice would bolt for the door,” Paal said. “So they embrace this strange cocktail of increasingly embracing the liberal institutions that govern the world since World War II, but at home keeping a tight lid on things so the Communist Party is not unhorsed by the people the way it was in the Soviet Union.”
It’s not just Xi. In the post-Mao period, previous presidents and party leaders reacted similarly. The tone was set by Deng Xiaoping, who opened up China’s economy but not the marketplace of ideas. “The real lesson was to keep the party in power,” Paal said. “Otherwise all the gains that China has made internationally and domestically can be sacrificed to China’s natural state, which is chaos.”
Chaos isn’t good for business, which along with geopolitics is China’s main focus.
“The two pillars of the Communist Party now are economic success and protecting the national interest,” Paal said. “Ideological purity — that stuff’s all gone by the boards. They have to deliver the goods and protect the nation’s not historical but mythical claims.”
These territorial claims, however mythical, are causing real disruption in East Asia. In fact, territorial disputes between China and Japan, as well as other Asian nations, are among the justifications for the Obama administration’s planned “pivot” to Asia. The land spats are spurred in part by rampant nationalism, not just by some in the government but by many Chinese citizens, who in this case are often allowed to opine online.
“The leadership is extremely sensitive to public opinion when it comes to territorial claims,” said Paal, who added that the government “seeds” public opinion on nationalism and the economy but not politics and liberalism.
This duality of curtailing media freedoms while allowing nationalists to use the media to ratchet up pressure has implications for both domestic and foreign policy. But censorship efforts may lose efficacy because of Web workarounds. “This ‘disruptive technology’ that Silicon Valley people talk about is pretty realistic,” Paal said.
China’s media freedom policies resonate beyond Beijing.
Blink, surveying global trends, said that Americans take an open Internet for granted. But he notes that there are still billions not online. “The question,” he said, “is to what Internet will they connect? The future cannot be about an Internet that is filtered, censored, or fragmented. It has to be one that is empowering us all.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.