China Hits Back at Clinton on Net Freedom

The Chinese government has responded quickly and strongly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom yesterday. From Information Week:

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu called remarks Thursday by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “harmful to Sino-American relations.”

Clinton called on the Chinese to conduct a “thorough investigation of the cyber intrusions” that hit Google and other Western companies in recent weeks that are believed to have emanated from China.

“We also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent,” Clinton said, during a speech in which Clinton called on world governments to establish policies toward a more open Internet.

But Zhaoxu said Clinton’s singling out of China was inappropriate and misguided, and constituted an inappropriate meddling in Chinese affairs. “The Chinese Internet is open,” Zhaoxu said in a statement posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Web site.

The Wall Street Journal looks at reactions from Chinese bloggers and other supporters of free expression:

Mrs. Clinton’s speech was closely watched by opponents of government censorship in China, which U.S. diplomats promoted in discussion sessions with Chinese bloggers Friday at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and at consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou. Wen Yunchao, a Guangzhou-based blogger, on Twitter called the speech “a declaration of war from a free nation to an autarchy,” and compared it to Winston Churchill’s anti-Soviet speech decrying the Iron Curtain.

Chinese blogger Zhou Shuguang said in an interview, “The Clinton speech is for sure to have positive effect. It’s welcomed by China’s Internet users, especially the active ones on Twitter, regarding the censorship situation in China.”

Others were less impressed. Novelist and blogger Yang Hengjun said on Twitter the speech was positive but that Chinese Web users should not expect too much from it. “The U.S. government has been talking about supporting world-wide Internet freedom for ages, but it hasn’t done much yet.”

The English edition of the official Global Times issued an especially harsh editorial:

The US campaign for uncensored and free flow of information on an unrestricted Internet is a disguised attempt to impose its values on other cultures in the name of democracy.

The hard fact that Clinton has failed to highlight in her speech is that bulk of the information flowing from the US and other Western countries is loaded with aggressive rhetoric against those countries that do not follow their lead.

In contrast, in the global information order, countries that are disadvantaged could not produce the massive flow of information required, and could never rival the Western countries in terms of information control and dissemination.

Keeping that in mind, it must be realized that when it comes to information content, quantity, direction and flow, there is absolutely no equality and fairness.

Meanwhile, in Forbes, Beijing Bureau Chief Gady Epstein argues that Chinese propaganda linking Google’s actions with U.S. foreign policy may divert the debate to one over bilateral squabbling rather than one over freedom of expression. Yet, he continues:

…The U.S. government and Google both have taken the right stand, and that counts for something in the long sweep of history. If Chinese critics lump Google and the U.S. together on Internet freedom, that is because they are onto something: The values that both Google and Clinton expressed this month are rooted in American, Bill of Rights principles.

That’s the good news: The world’s leading superpower and the world’s leading Internet company have made a clear statement that fundamental freedoms–of expression, of assembly–must apply in cyberspace. They have taken note that, as Clinton said Thursday, these freedoms won’t flourish on their own, despite techno-Utopian predictions to the contrary.

See also “The Internet Freedom Agenda” from Foreign Policy.

And the New York Times writes:

In an editorial, the English-language edition of a Chinese newspaper, Global Times, said that the demand for an unfettered Internet was a form of “information imperialism,” because less developed nations could not compete with Western countries in the arena of information flow.

One big question is whether ordinary Chinese will, to any large degree, accept China’s arguments. Although urban, middle-class Chinese often support government policies on sovereignty issues such as Tibet or Taiwan, they generally deride media censorship.

That feeling is especially pronounced among Chinese who refer to themselves as netizens. China has the most Internet users of any country, 384 million by official count, but also the most sophisticated system of Internet censorship, nicknamed the Great Firewall.