If you tell enough stories, perhaps the moral will show up.


Saving the Appearances

News like this is a bit puzzling. The basic story is straightforward: nasty Chinese government wants to keep its people in ignorance to preserve the despotism, and nasty western (in this story, given the source, read American) firms are way too ready to help.

Except. Except.... I don't believe there's the slightest hope of it working. I can't see that anybody can believe it'll work. It's just bollocks. For certain Skype can censor keywords like "Falun Gong" and "Dalai Lama" and those words won't get through. But unless they are using something a lot better than our spam filters (among the best that money can buy), "F4lun G0ng" and "Da1ai L4ma" will work just fine. Is this just quaint? And for sure google.cn can slant its results (but not that much). The great firewall (it must actually be transparent proxy) can even put up polite panels explaining that such and such a site conflicts with government policy and is therefore blocked. But it doesn't matter.

The effect of the Internet is not to link poor confused foreigners to proper liberal western thought. I wish it was sometimes, but it's not. And I'm sure that there are plenty of people in the middle and upper levels of provincial and national PRC Party and government who imagine that a nice Middle Kingdom Internet without alien pollution and troublemaking would give all of the benefits and none of the trouble. They're wrong too. The Internet puts people in touch -- terrorists, racists, grey-haired security bores and the rest. It's such powerful communication that you can cut and hack away at it, and unless you shut it off entirely it'll pass ideas, rumour, gossip and news better than the world ever saw before.

The last twenty years of the Soviet Union were run in a state of hysterical denial. Everyone from factory foreman up all the way up to the all-union politburo was aware of the choice between muffled giggles and bare-faced lies. The self-confidence of the national intelligentsia had been undone in the sixties by a few hundred dissidents writing and circulating hand-copied and roneoed samizdat publications. Pretty much everyone in that key group went to prison and all that did was keep the lid on for a while.

Agile Deng, the octagenarian contortionist, dodged the fate of the USSR. The focus on economic development, dropping socialism while retaining the central position for the party, has diverted, as it was intended to, the art and skill of the whole nation. And a cultural entity as big as Han+Mandarin doesn't need to look outside much. Nonetheless, the basic battle has been lost. There is a middle class with weak or absent Party affiliations. Those people know they're smart, they know they've done something amazing, and they know the Party needs them more than they need it. And their communications are slicker than rubber stencils and biros.

They hardly need outside thought -- their own is dangerous enough. The corrosive, indelible idea: people like them should choose their own rulers, is there already. The rest, as they VoIP, email and blog, will emerge from their side of the great firewall, not ours. They may act this year. It may have to wait for a big shock: the coming bank failures, a corruption & incompetence scandal like SARS, too big to hush up, or even a failed military adventure. It may be a polite handover, stage by stage. It'll be Chinese, but the end result will be a multi-party state and a bigger and more frightening democracy than India.

And the Chinese network perimeter? It's just saving appearances. I doubt if anyone who works on it really believes that they can freeze or channel political thought. Sure sells a lot of firewalls though.

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