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China makes Clinton’s speech look tougher than it was

China makes Clinton’s speech look tougher than it was

China’s overwrought reaction to Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom yesterday has had the interesting effect of making her words seem much bolder and significant than they actually were. Here’s what a foreign ministry spokesman had to say:

"Regarding comments that contradict facts and harm China-U.S. relations, we are firmly opposed," Ma said in a statement posted Friday on the ministry’s Web site. "We urge the U.S. side to respect facts and stop using the so-called freedom of the Internet to make unjustified accusations against China."

China’s Global Times newspaper went farther, accusing the United States of "information imperialism." It’s interesting to read the London Times’ write-up of the Chinese reaction, which reports that Clinton had "warned Beijing that its alleged attack on Google, which prompted the internet search engine to threaten withdrawal from China, would have “consequences”".

In fact, Clinton warned that "Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks" — defined generally — would face consequences. Here’s what she actually said about China (my emphasis):

The most recent example of Google’s review of its business operations in China has attracted a great deal of interest. We look to Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make this announcement. We also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent. The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it’s great that so many people there are now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century. The United States and China have different views on this issue. And we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently.

Elsewhere in the speech, Clinton mentioned China’s restrictions on information, particularly religious material, but it certainly doesn’t sound like the United States is planning to take concrete actions against China’s Internet censors anytime soon.

It strikes me that Beijing could have issued a statement along the lines of, "Secretary Clinton is right to say that the United States and China have different views on this issue. We welcome her invitation to dialog but ask that the United States respect the sovereignty of our electronic space and unique political context. We are actively engaged in cracking down on criminals and extremists who take refuge in cyberspace."

Acting as if Clinton’s temperate remarks amounted to a thrown gauntlet makes it appear to the outside world that they have something to be ashamed of. It doesn’t seem like the response of a secure superpower.