Op-Eds


Internet Censorship in China and Human Rights

By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal, China Real Time Report

Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, argues that the U.S. may be doing more harm than good by linking China’s Internet censorship to human rights. Mr. Lubman teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao,” (Stanford University Press, 1999).

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent speech treating China’s Internet censorship as a violation of human rights is unlikely to cause China to modify its policies. Sino-American relations would be less roiled if the Obama administration muted its disapproval of conduct within China that foreigners cannot change, and focused instead on practices that can be more realistically affected by foreign pressure and influences.

Determined to maintain the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the current Chinese leadership will not tolerate any perceived threat to its Party-led rule. China censors the Internet to curb expression of sentiments regarded as dissident, and to prevent perceived dissidents from organizing via the Internet. At stake, too, is the Party’s need to maintain the support of the many millions of Chinese whose livelihoods and personal freedom have benefited from the economic reforms presided over by the Party for the last thirty years.

It is important to recall the extremely limited effect that U.S. pressure or expressions of concern about human rights issues has had on Chinese policies. As China scholar David Lampton wrote in a comprehensive overview of U.S.-Chinese relations, “Same Bed, Different Dreams,” “Americans frequently flatter themselves unduly in assuming that their threats and rhetorical expressions have much impact. Expressions of concern are impressive, but they are not the locomotives of change.”

When John Foster Dulles formulated a policy of advocating peaceful evolution of Communist societies, Mao Zedong argued that Dulles’ aim was to “subvert us and change our ideas….[The United States] wants to corrupt us by a peaceful evolution,” as Geremie Barmé, a leading specialist on contemporary China, notes. Barmé further observes that Mao’s reaction continues to animate today’s leaders, who vigorously oppose any tendencies toward pluralism, and who instead trumpet encouragement of a “harmonious society.”

Secretary Clinton’s announcement in late January that opposition to censorship is America’s “national brand” echoes past inflated claims of America’s mission to spread democracy. Moreover, positioning the U.S. as the champion of democracy is seen in Beijing as a blatant assault on the Party’s rule: Her speech was denounced by the Party-run Global Times as “information imperialism.”

Currently, the grip that the Party seems to have over Chinese society is strong enough to suggest that despite decades of lecturing from the U.S., America has not spread democracy to China, and the Obama administration should avoid criticism that Beijing characterizes as “ideological war.” Ian Buruma notes that this attitude is not entirely irrational, because “If Chinese chauvinism is defensive, American chauvinism can be offensive.”

The American view of the Internet as a liberalizing force rests on assumptions that overlook cultural differences. Recent research indicates that the Chinese seem to use the Internet quite differently than Europeans and Americans. For example, a recent McKinsey report cited by the Financial Times found that “Chinese users spend most of their time online on entertainment while their European peers are much more focused on work.” The Financial Times notes that Chinese Internet users are comparatively poorer, younger and less educated than their Western counterparts. It further suggests that the government, by only loosely enforcing intellectual property rights and thereby permitting access to popular music and films for free on websites, plays to the preferences of Internet users for entertainment.

As Barmé has observed, the current “Open Door” “…doesn’t mean that the China of the future is going to look more and more like us. It is going to continue to look like China– and will have the wherewithal to do so.” At the same, time, some Chinese clearly desire the strengthening of democratic values.

The Internet’s entertainment value aside, it plays a considerable and growing role in spreading information and opinions that do not appear in traditional media. In the face of the government’s commitment to censorship and frequent invocation of nationalism, how might the Internet evolve in China? At the moment, it expresses the chaos of competing values that currently marks Chinese society, and no one can predict what China will be like, say, a decade from now.

For the present, there is one path that American policy can continue to follow as it has in recent years, and that is to support reforms that quietly work to strengthen the rule of law in China. For example, an Open Government Regulation that benefited from consultation with foreign experts was promulgated by China’s State Council and came into effect in late 2008. Recent reports suggest that it is contributing to reducing the secrecy that has normally marked government plans and actions. The U.S.-China Legal Cooperation Fund, supported by the U.S-China Business Council, has, among other projects, helped to educate peasants about their rights and to train legal aid lawyers. Also, in recent years China and the U.S. have held separate intergovernmental dialogues on human rights and on law, and during President Obama’s recent visit agreed to continue them.

These are only modest examples, but nothing bolder appears likely to have even mild and long term impact given the current resistance of the Chinese Communist Party to Western democratic political currents of thought. The Obama Administration should temper the human rights rhetoric it directs at China’s censorship of the Internet and restrain any hopes it might have that the Internet can soon expand the impact of democratic ideas on China’s netizens, even while encouraging as best it can China’s ongoing opening to the outside world.
2/10/2010