This week’s edition of The Economist features an epic special report by Gady Epstein on social, political, commercial, technical and international aspects of China’s Internet. From his introduction:
THIRTEEN YEARS AGO Bill Clinton, then America’s president, said that trying to control the internet in China would be like trying to “nail Jell-O to the wall”. At the time he seemed to be stating the obvious. By its nature the web was widely dispersed, using so many channels that it could not possibly be blocked. Rather, it seemed to have the capacity to open up the world to its users even in shut-in places. Just as earlier communications technologies may have helped topple dictatorships in the past (for example, the telegraph in Russia’s Bolshevik revolutions in 1917 and short-wave radio in the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991), the internet would surely erode China’s authoritarian state. Vastly increased access to information and the ability to communicate easily with like-minded people round the globe would endow its users with asymmetric power, diluting the might of the state and acting as a force for democracy.
Those expectations have been confounded. Not only has Chinese authoritarian rule survived the internet, but the state has shown great skill in bending the technology to its own purposes, enabling it to exercise better control of its own society and setting an example for other repressive regimes. China’s party-state has deployed an army of cyber-police, hardware engineers, software developers, web monitors and paid online propagandists to watch, filter, censor and guide Chinese internet users. Chinese private internet companies, many of them clones of Western ones, have been allowed to flourish so long as they do not deviate from the party line.
If this special report were about the internet in any Western country, it would have little to say about the role of the government; instead, it would focus on the companies thriving on the internet, speculate about which industries would be disrupted next and look at the way the web is changing individuals’ lives. Such things are of interest in China too, but this report concentrates on the part played by the government because that is the most extraordinary thing about the internet there. The Chinese government has spent a huge amount of effort on making sure that its internet is different, not just that freedom of expression is limited but also that the industry that is built around it serves national goals as well as commercial ones.
The report’s contents:
- The machinery of control: Cat and mouse — How China makes sure its internet abides by the rules, including CDT’s ‘Directives from the Ministry of Truth‘.
- Microblogs: Small beginnings — Microblogs are a potentially powerful force for change, but they have to tread carefully.
- The Great Firewall: The art of concealment — Chinese screening of online material from abroad is becoming ever more sophisticated.
- E-commerce: Ours, all ours — A wealth of internet businesses with Chinese characteristics. (See also recent Economist cover stories ‘E-commerce in China: The Alibaba phenomenon‘ and ‘Alibaba: The world’s greatest bazaar.’)
- Cyber-hacking: Masters of the cyber-universe — China’s state-sponsored hackers are ubiquitous—and totally unabashed. The Economist is also hosting a debate, set to conclude next week, on the motion “Is industrial cyber-espionage the biggest threat to relations between America and China?” BDA China chairman and founder Duncan Clark is arguing for, and Claremont McKenna College’s Minxin Pei against, with the Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal also contributing.
- Internet controls in other countries: To each their own — China’s model for controlling the internet is being adopted elsewhere.
- Assessing the effects: A curse disguised as a blessing? — The internet may be delaying the radical changes China needs.
- Shutting down the internet: Thou shalt not kill — Turning off the entire internet is a nuclear option best not exercised.
Epstein discusses the report in a short audio podcast: