Hillary, Hu and YouTube

What do Hillary Clinton and Hu Jintao have in common? Check your mobile phone for the answer. Yesterday Sec. Clinton laid out her vision for "Development in the 21st Century," explaining the U.S. State Department’s current efforts to equip mobile-phone users in poor and war-torn countries, from the Congo to Mexico to Iraq. She also ...

FREDERIC BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
FREDERIC BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
FREDERIC BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

What do Hillary Clinton and Hu Jintao have in common? Check your mobile phone for the answer.

Yesterday Sec. Clinton laid out her vision for "Development in the 21st Century," explaining the U.S. State Department's current efforts to equip mobile-phone users in poor and war-torn countries, from the Congo to Mexico to Iraq. She also announced that Google's Eric Schmidt, who earlier visited Baghdad with a State Department delegation, will help launch the Iraqi government's YouTube channel "to promote transparency and good governance." Clinton's hope is that enhanced communications will enhance banking systems, governance, and freedom around the world.

But it's not only Washington that hopes to use new media and mobile-phone technology to reach the grassroots. A few hours before Clinton took the stage in Washington, more than a million university students and local Party cadres in China's eastern Zhejiang province  received an unexpected text message from Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping: "I give you my kindest regards on behalf of the Party Central Committee!"

What do Hillary Clinton and Hu Jintao have in common? Check your mobile phone for the answer.

Yesterday Sec. Clinton laid out her vision for "Development in the 21st Century," explaining the U.S. State Department’s current efforts to equip mobile-phone users in poor and war-torn countries, from the Congo to Mexico to Iraq. She also announced that Google’s Eric Schmidt, who earlier visited Baghdad with a State Department delegation, will help launch the Iraqi government’s YouTube channel "to promote transparency and good governance." Clinton’s hope is that enhanced communications will enhance banking systems, governance, and freedom around the world.

But it’s not only Washington that hopes to use new media and mobile-phone technology to reach the grassroots. A few hours before Clinton took the stage in Washington, more than a million university students and local Party cadres in China’s eastern Zhejiang province  received an unexpected text message from Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping: "I give you my kindest regards on behalf of the Party Central Committee!"

In Beijing, Hu Jintao hasn’t given speeches in the Great Hall of the People about how mobile phones can invigorate the Chinese Communist Party, but the government has started deploying its own strategy nonetheless. Yesterday’s Qianjiang Evening News announced the launch of something called the "National Low-level Party Construction Mobile Phone Network." As Danwei.org’s Eric Mu writes, this refers to "a recently launched SMS message distribution system that purportedly enables grassroots [local] Party cadres to consult on issues and voice their opinions."

It’s common to assume that more technology and more access to information will lead to more people clamouring for western values and lifestyle. Maybe, and maybe not.

Since the days of the first printing presses and the Gutenberg Bible, information technology has helped expand horizons and equip evangelists, of all kinds. The difference today is that modern social-networking tools allow users, not only printing-press owners, to generate content. But having watched how skillfully Team Obama used Facebook to whip up and channel support in 2008, the difference between "empowering" and simply organizing people is unclear.

Technology allows people to better share information, for any means. And those who spend the most time figuring out the new rules of the game will be the most adept at shaping the conversation. Hence the CCP, in addition to blocking certain web sites, is now studying the new rules. Blocking communications, after all, only goes so far. Despite Twitter being officially blocked in China, citizens in southern Guangzhou in November found a way around the Great Firewall to tweet news about a planned polluting waste incinerator plant.

Of course, Beijing might turn out to be a lousy new-media player, akin to your fuddy-duddy uncle trying to catch the next youthwave, but that’s not certain. What is clear is that Hillary Clinton and Hu Jintao both have high hopes for how new media and mobile phones will improve governance, their way.

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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