Sunday, September 25, 2005

Chinese (media) Democracy

China's political and economic systems stand famously at cross-purposes, constantly stepping on one another's toes like two dancers who can't agree to move in tandem. The former imposes strict rules on what can be said and by whom, while the free-market economic reforms that started in the late 1970s have given rise to the most diverse media landscape the nation has ever seen. Digital communication technology in particular has taken the country by storm; its 100 million+ Net population is second only to ours (which is 185 million strong) in size, and its mobile phone user base is over three times larger than that. These trends, along with the brisk expansion of the Chinese economy in general, will eventually overturn the old single-party system of Communist rule which they have already made obsolete.

The Chinese government's censorial practices on the Internet include blocking access to foreign websites deemed offensive, pornographic, or "against national security and public interest"; searching for and deleting bulletin board posts that foment dissent; and forcing participants in online discussion groups to register using their real names. But, as you might think would be obvious, such top-down restrictions clash with the basic nature of digital communication networks: a more effective solution would be to ban mobile phones and the Internet entirely. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the new media order as it cites the danger of "harmful foreign thinking or culture" to justify its repressive regulatory actions. As we have seen here in the US, the law offers pitifully inadequate protection against spam and music piracy--so the Communist Party will discover is the case with political dissent and unpopular opinions.

The Internet cannot replace an entrenched political hegemony by itself, of course. But it can make people curious about the world outside their nation and lay bare the government's attempts to conceal or whitewash sensitive political and social issues. As the middle class continues to grow, it will demand more rights, more access to currently restricted communication channels, and more accountability in government. And the digital technologies that are spreading rapidly in China only fan the flames of these developments. The Chinese Communist party has been known to engage in some fairly ludicrous rhetorical gymnastics to reconcile its Marxist underpinnings with its economic liberalization policies, but I don't think they're gonna be able to rationalize their way out of this latest challenge.