A Giant Cage
The internet was expected to help democratise China. Instead, it has enabled the authoritarian state to get a firmer grip, says Gady Epstein. But for how long?
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 ...