Tea Leaf Nation
American Unrest Proves China Got the Internet Right
Beijing has been criticized for its Great Firewall and online censorship. Now it's looking prescient.
In 2016, social media dominated the internet and the world. On November 8, Republican Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, in some ways because of his social media support. At the same time, the internet in which Americans take such pride has been beset with social crises. It has become ever more extreme, filled with an endless stream of fake news. By contrast, the Chinese internet, long mocked by the Western world, has entered a period of peace and calm. China’s system of internet management, it’s now clear, has worked; and the West’s model of free speech is showing cracks in a new media era.
The internet has generally been a global good, rapidly and profoundly changing modern life, with massive effects on thought, ideology, and even industry. But the seemingly omnipotent web has also bred new problems in world governance. Private citizens have shown themselves poor stewards of the internet; their collective sense of rules and laws is rather weak. Instead, the web is based on the expression of moods and the airing of grievances, and is characterized by unreasonableness and a lack of order. Recently, the internet has also become a place where America’s ever-more-extreme social conflicts find a voice. The web has become polarized and social rifts have grown deeper, posing a huge challenge to modern American society.
What should the United States do? One view of the web, which the United States often seems to support, is that the internet is sui generis, both part of yet removed from the real world, and requires an entirely new and bespoke system to govern it. Another view holds that some lessons learned from the past, and from the physical world, can be adapted and deployed to govern online behavior. That’s China’s view.
Although China’s internet is often accused of being highly regulated, that honor actually belongs to the U.S. web. Partly because of its long head start, the United States has the more numerous and comprehensive set of laws governing internet safety. Starting in 1977, the United States began to lay down one law after another aimed at strengthening online information security and network security, which ultimately shaped the rules of the game for everyone. The Privacy Act promulgated in 1974 and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998 are but two of many examples.
Just as with traditional governance, the U.S. internet was restrained by two main principles: the rule of law and the market. In these spaces, nations, corporations, and society each exercised some measure of control over the other. Big telecom companies worked with government to create a Pax-Americana internet. Internet uses saw their informational freedoms expand in step with the development of U.S. telecommunications.
That was before the shock of “PRISM-gate,” which suggested the expansion of internet freedom was coming, or had already come, to an end. In an age of sharp social conflicts, American officials learned, it was not enough to depend on industry self-regulation or individual discipline. Where the information industry is regarded as an economic actor, and not a public servant, social media extremism and the spread of falsehoods is an inevitable symptom.
Contrast the U.S. system with the development of Chinese internet governance. Whereas the United States has a system focusing on freedom to produce and share content, China has taken an opposite, more authoritarian approach. The government in particular takes the lead, which is in keeping with China’s social contract, which prioritizes stability and economic growth. Nurtured by its traditional political heritage, the Chinese government seeks to reduce the likelihood of marginal dissatisfaction escalating to public crisis. China has so far been very successful in regulating online space by encouraging public discussions, providing outlets for public grievances, but restricting ill-meant rumors and information that might impact negatively social stability or incur social panic. This approach is suitable and wise for China in an era of massive social transformation.
China now has a bevy of laws regulating its web, but its most potent governance tools are the Great Firewall, which filters out some foreign content seen as hazardous to China’s information security, and an internal system that screens out keywords determined to be disadvantageous to social stability. The concepts behind them reflect two broad judgments: First, the collapse of the Soviet Union happened partly because in its final stages, the Soviet Republic lost sovereignty over information within its borders, allowing false U.S. propaganda to flood in, defeating the USSR on the ideological front; and second, information on the internet comes from complex sources, and so false and manipulated information is rampant.
China has always regulated information from the top down, but from 2003 to 2008, with the Beijing Olympics approaching, Chinese internet regulation was comparatively laissez-faire, part of an effort to spur sector growth and the development of big Chinese internet companies. Starting in the second half of 2008, which saw violent terrorist attacks in the western region of Xinjiang that left multiple deaths and the beginning of global unrest powered by the internet, the Chinese government became more aware of the serious repercussions resulting from internet rumors and the web’s huge power to mobilize people, and tightened its regulation accordingly. Maintaining social stability became even more important, and the government gradually became more conservative on this score.
One enduring problem is the lack of media literacy among Chinese netizens. They aren’t familiar with the basic operating mode in Western speech, where all ideas contend; when faced with unfiltered information, average Chinese web users often have no way to discern truth from falsehoods. China’s response is pragmatic: it does not block VPNs wholesale (which allow users to “hop” the Great Firewall), nor does China block all outside information. Some sites, such as Cankao Xiaoxi, even sometimes translate Western criticisms of China, and can be freely shared. But if China set aside all information barriers, it would be the equivalent of handing over its information sovereignty.
Because it draws upon lessons from information management in the pre-internet age, China treats cyberspace much as it does physical space. Just as Beijing regulates speech deemed as jeopardizing social stability and monitors large gatherings in order to promote social harmony and cohesion in the real world, so does it regulate speech and “gatherings” in the virtual world. It’s okay to complain about Chinese politics over dinner, just not at an organized street rally; similarly, China’s regulatory bodies tolerate social criticisms from average netizens, even those directed at political leaders, and generally only target some opinion leaders who, in the government’s view, instigate social turmoil. Meanwhile, both offline and online, Chinese official media continue to act as the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, aiming primarily to promote social consensus.
Underlying this approach is an understanding Beijing has had since the founding of the People’s Republic of China: media is the most effective social mobilizer. Given media’s power, the fundamental goal of China’s internet regulation has been to prevent social unrest, not to filter out all criticism of authority.
The United States has a different history, one in which different opinions compete for public attention. For generations, this model has worked. But the social contract underpinning free speech in the United States appears to be fraying.
China’s government is well aware that the internet is a powerful agent for social change. The question is how much of this change is positive. Beijing has hedged its bets, showing itself rather tolerant of grassroots criticism on social networks while regulating opinion-makers, state media, and outside information. The social stability China has enjoyed so far in this new age suggests the approach is working. But the state will remain vigilant against potential risks that may crop up. The internet teems with opportunities, but also challenges to governance and social cohesion. China is no exception — and neither is America.
Image: Elijah Nouvelage/Stringer/Getty