China: the Web has no use for “American-style freedoms”

By David Bandurski — In yet another volley in the stand-off over Google and Internet censorship in China, the State Council Information Office, the external voice of China’s government and the core body charged with controlling the Web in China, released a statement on Monday rejecting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Internet controls in China.

The release, carried at the top of all major Web portals in China Monday and yesterday, was framed as an interview with an unspecified Information Office spokesperson by the official Xinhua News Agency.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the text of the Information Office release, but there are a couple of general points worth noting.

[ABOVE: The State Council Information Office statement on the Internet in China remains the biggest headline at QQ.com yesterday.]

First of all, while the overarching tone of the release was one of clinch-fisted defiance, there was a hint (just the slightest hint) of the extended hand, suggesting China does wish to keep lines of communication with the U.S. open:

China’s Internet is still in the midst of rapid development, and we are willing to enhance international dialogue and cooperation on the issue of Internet development and management, on the basis of equality and mutual respect, in the interest of enhancing mutual understanding and achieving common development.

It would be very easy, of course, to dismiss this as an insincere gesture. But it might be the only opening for cool heads over this issue.

Secondly, while the Information Office makes a number of exaggerated claims, notably that “Chinese web users can fully express their views within the scope permitted by the law” (which experience has shown to be demonstrably false), some of the assertions about China’s progress in Internet development should be acknowledged.

I make this last point because it is important to remember, in the midst of the high-minded rhetoric and saber rattling, that China’s Internet has developed remarkably, though of course not altogether freely, over the past 15 years.

It should not surprise anyone to learn that our Chinese fellows at CMP are vocal opponents, privately and often publicly, of restrictions on the Internet and on free speech generally — but few if any would deny at the same time the important progress China has made in the area of Internet development.

Of course — and now I’m scurrying back to the other side of the fence — we also have to recognize that China does not have solely the CCP to thank for its progress in Internet development.

The Information Office makes much of the big numbers China has posted — 384 million Web users, 3.68 million Websites and four million blog posts on average per day. But to the extent that China’s Internet does offer a new space for expression, it is Chinese citizens who are responsible for pushing open this new space (often at substantial risk to themselves, as the recent jailing of Web users has shown).

And now, back to the saber rattling . . .

China’s official People’s Daily ran an editorial yesterday by He Zhenhua (何振华) — the pen name for well-known party columnist Lu Xinning (卢新宁) — criticizing the stance on Internet freedom taken by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week.

The He Zhenhua editorial heaped scorn on what it called the “cultural hegemony” of the United States, and concluded by asserting that “the world rejects the forced imposition of value systems, and the Internet has no need for coercive captaining by ‘American-style freedoms.’”

A more or less complete translation of the People’s Daily editorial follows:

China’s Internet progress has nothing to do with ‘American-style freedom’

In her speech on “Internet freedom,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized China’s management of the Web, saying it was [walling itself off from] “the progress of the next century.” And she suggested that without her so-called “Internet freedom,” other nations would make no progress.

Is this really how it is?

Up to the end of last year, China had 384 million Internet users, and 3.68 million Websites . . . more than one million online forums, more than two million blogs, with more than four million blogs posts on average every day . . . Such a scale of development, and such ardent and rich expression, strikes amazement in other countries, including the United States.

Just ask yourself, if China’s Internet is truly without freedom as Clinton says, how is it that it has become a reservoir of public opinion, a major platform for speech, and a new channel of political participation for the Chinese people? How could we see the emergence of such recognizable dark horse brands as Sina, Sohu and Baidu? And how could it be that major Internet companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Amazon are profitable in China’s market?

The only rational explanation is that Clinton has set up China’s legal regulation of the Internet in opposition to her so-called “Internet freedom.”

Should the Internet be controlled in accordance with the law? The answer goes without saying.

Put simply, if there is no lawful control of the Internet, we would have no way of relieving Clinton’s concerns — “The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent.” And we would have no way of ensuring the security Clinton speaks of — “Our ability to bank online, use electronic commerce, and safeguard billions of dollars in intellectual property are all at stake if we cannot rely on the security of our information networks.”

It is precisely because the Internet is a “double-edged sword” that the control and regulation of the Internet is a priority for many nations, and that this has become international practice. The United Nations World Summit on the Information Society [WSIS] pointed out clearly at its Tunis conference [in 2005] that: “Governments must play a role in Internet governance.” [NOTE: The Chinese used here seems to be more direct than the original language in English. The portion I found most closely corresponding to the People's Daily language is: "[We] acknowledge the key role and responsibilities of governments in the WSIS process.”]

In fact, whether it is the “The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998,” or the “Can-Spam Act of 2003,” the United States has always paid special attention to the management of the Internet. How is it that when this management is the same, America is [portrayed as] protecting freedoms, while China is [portrayed as] standing against freedom? . . .

The Internet should be free, and it should governed by rule of law. If we set aside legal regulation, if we set aside security assurances, we will have no Internet freedom to speak of whatsoever. If a nation applies strict controls to its own Internet [as the editorial has just asserted that nations in the west do], and on the other hand orders another country to implement “unrestricted Internet access,” it has to be said that this is an unreasonable provocation and slight on the dignity of that country’s rule of law.

China has ever placed great priority on the balance between Internet development and control. China’s management of the Internet suits the necessary demands of a nation governed by rule of law, and accords with international practice. It can be said that China’s rapid Internet development has benefited from an environment of freedom and openness, and has benefitted also from standardized and orderly management. In this respect, if others resort constantly to double standards, holding that only their vision of freedom is freedom, and only what they determine to be regulation is regulation — this type of rigid thinking is, to put it rather politely, wishful thinking. To put it more pointedly, it is cultural hegemony.

In her speech, Clinton elevated the issue of “Internet freedoms” to the question of “what kind of world we want,” and this certainly deserves some consideration. Of course, there is one thing that has always been clear: the world rejects the forced imposition of value systems, and the Internet has no need for coercive captaining by “American-style freedoms.”

[Posted by David Bandurski, January 27, 2010, 10:43am HK]

[Homepage image by Windy Sydney available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

One Comment to “China: the Web has no use for “American-style freedoms””

  1. [...] Chinese response, however, overlooks an incredibly important point made by David Bandurski at the China Media Project.  The web in China is not a finished product, but a process that is being constantly re-made by [...]

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