This week’s meeting in Beijing of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which will inaugurate a new slate of leaders, has not exactly brought a golden dawn of free expression. In addition to cracking down on all forms of media, China’s creatively paranoid security forces are on the lookout for threats such as taxi passengers carrying pingpong balls that they might slip through windows to deliver subversive messages.
Such off-the-wall measures, however, usefully highlight one of the central challenges that will confront Xi Jinping, the princeling pegged to be China’s next president, and his new colleagues on the elite Politburo Standing Committee: how to maintain the flow of information vital to economic growth and public well-being in China without undermining the party’s legitimacy and primacy.
An explosion in Chinese Internet use and the rise of social media have made it harder for the outgoing duo of Party Secretary and President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to maintain a “harmonious” society, to use one of Hu’s favorite adjectives. The number of Internet users has jumped to 538 million from 20 million in 2001. To keep tabs on them and block information, China’s government has built a sophisticated regime of technological filters and human minders. Access to foreign websites is through only a few entry/exit points.
Within China itself, layers of formal and informal arrangements seek to create a well-tended simulacrum of the Web’s wide-open spaces. Under Hu and Wen, China has also insinuated more censors and moles into newsrooms and management offices of traditional media.
These and other repressive measures have raised hackles without tamping down popular discontent over corruption, pollution and other hot-button issues. The number of protests and social disturbances has grown by some estimates to about 500 per day, up almost fourfold from a decade ago. To their credit, in areas such as pollution and food safety, Chinese authorities recognize that social media can help them do their jobs by exposing problems and focusing public ire. China has also begun to use the Web to promote greater transparency about government decision-making, not least for foreign consumption.
Still, those who violate Beijing’s taboos on topics of public discussion or journalistic inquiry are persecuted. For instance, Freedom House noted that during 2011’s short-lived Jasmine Revolution, dozens of Chinese bloggers, activists and lawyers were abducted and imprisoned.
Chinese Communism and Western journalism may never mix, but China’s leaders have at times championed greater public access to reliable information. During the early 1980s, for example, when the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping were just gearing up, one of his pet projects was a joint venture with Encyclopaedia Britannica to create reference books that would help lead the Chinese out of the dark night of the Cultural Revolution.
China has come a long way since then, and print encyclopedias are going the way of the dodo, but as the country grows richer and the challenges of development become more complex, public access to wider sources of information is even more essential. Just as the Internet and social media have helped shine a spotlight on pollution and food safety, they can also help curb financial fraud, corruption and abuses of power — all stated goals of the Chinese Communist Party. And without greater Internet access, Chinese companies will find it harder to climb the value chain or compete in the services market.
Outsiders have worked to punch holes in China’s Great Firewall. Congress has appropriated about $95 million since 2008 for the State Department and USAID to support proxy servers, websites, apps and software targeting users in China and a dozen other countries. Other groups such as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Radio Free Asia and other U.S. international broadcasters, are also involved. More money for such efforts would help, especially if it provided more bandwidth and training for users. Groups such as Freedom House and the Open Net Initiative deserve wide public support for exposing censorship, filtering and surveillance.
We are skeptical about any proposals for “reforming” Internet governance that China itself may offer at next month’s meeting in Dubai organized by the International Telecommunication Union. That said, former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman recently predicted that Xi Jinping and his colleagues will inevitably have to rebalance China’s own Internet policies in favor of more openness. That would indeed be harmonious, and we hope he’s right.