Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Friedman’s Flawed Beijing Bulletin

On the Huffington Post, Jeffrey Wasserstrom responds to Thomas Friedman’s recent column in the New York Times about the power of nationalist bloggers in China:

One problem with Friedman’s column is that it creates the erroneous impression that Chinese online politics equals blogging. In reality, online bulletin boards and chat rooms are also very important.

A second problem is that that he implies that most Chinese Internet activity is political. Some is, with complaints about corruption often being as common a subject as nationalism when discussions turn to politics. But in China, as elsewhere, people largely go online in search of fun, as a way to meet new people and stay in touch with old friends, and to buy and sell things.

In addition, when Friedman says things about the Chinese Internet and Chinese nationalism that are right, his anlaysis generally isn’t as new as his breathless tone and use of phrases like “Watch this space” suggest. He wants his readers to think he’s taking them places no one has tried to direct them gone before and that what’s happening on the ground in China right now is novel. But this generally just isn’t the case.

His vision of the Chinese Internet as constituting the closest thing to a public sphere in a country without elections and of popular nationalism influencing China’s leaders, for example, echoes things that the best reporters and media analysts have been saying for years, as have many academic China specialists. And they’ve often made these points when previous crises that have much in common with the current one were unfolding.