Monday, October 19, 2015

Quotable: John Osburg on China’s controlling the internet

Sunday, October 18th 2015
“In his riveting profiles of entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, dissidents, and strivers, [Evan] Osnos discovers the emergence in Chinese society of something even more fundamental than a desire for political representation: a search for dignity.”  This is the view of John Osburg, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester, in his review of Osnos’s book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, in the September-October, 2015 issue ofForeign Affairs. His review also mentions the influence of the internet and social media.

Although it’s true that China’s economic boom has encouraged levels of materialism and conspicuous consumption that would have been unimaginable in earlier eras, the country’s increased openness to the world has also produced a different set of values.  A growing segment of Chinese society now not only yearns to be well clothed and well fed but also feels a keen desire for truth, meaning, and spiritual fulfillment. 

The implicit post-Tiananmen social contract offered material well-being and social stability in exchange for disengagement from politics.  Osnos’ stories reveal a fraying of this contract, as more and more Chinese citizens seek a version of the good life that goes beyond owning a house or a car.  As ever-greater numbers of ordinary Chinese go online, travel abroad, and adopt the latest spiritual or self-help fads, the Communist Party has found itself ill prepared to confront the desire for not just a materially comfortable life but a meaningful one. 

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In the early years of the Internet era, many observers predicted that the spread of digital communications technology would overwhelm the Chinese government’s ability to suppress all these tensions and resentments brewing within society. In 2000, Bill Clinton declared that the Communist Party’s attempts to control the Internet would be like “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” It was a good line -- but controlling the Internet hasn’t proved quite as hard as Clinton and many others expected. Today, the Chinese government blocks websites and search results with the so-called Great Firewall, an army of censors deletes articles and comments deemed politically sensitive, and legions of government-sponsored Internet users steer online sentiment in the government’s favor by posting pro–Communist Party and nationalist comments in discussion forums. 

The recent rise of social media platforms such as Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) and WeChat (an incredibly popular messaging program, which boasts approximately 355 million users) has made it much harder for the government to restrict information online, as messages posted to such services tend to spread rapidly before censors catch wind of them. Still, the Chinese authorities do not seem to be in immediate danger of losing their grip on their citizens’ digital lives. And yet their success so far has been something of a Pyrrhic victory; controlling the Internet has meant suppressing innovation along with dissent.

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