Today's excellent update in Salon by Stephan Faris on how U.S. companies are aiding and abetting Chinese censorship targeted a subject close to my heart: China and the Net. It inspires once again the question: is the Net a force for democracy?
It used to be a staple of technolibertarian evangelism: the Internet's many-to-many powers of information distribution would break down hierarchies, undermine authoritarian governments, and allow people to evade any kind of censorship or thought control. You don't hear this tenet of faith proselytized as much as you once did, (perhaps because of the Net's dismal failure to enhance democracy here in the United States), but it's still provocative to evaluate it with respect to China.
I've always been skeptical that the Internet would prove to be a threat to Chinese Communist power. Perhaps I'm still scarred by the events of June 4, 1989 but it was never clear to me how all the blogs and e-mail in the world would add up to much in the way of liberty when the government was prepared to be as ruthless in quashing dissent as China is. For real democracy to flourish, I argued, there needed to be a middle class big enough to force change at every level of society. And that would require massive economic growth. Both the Internet and pressure for democratic reforms would likely flourish in conjunction with that growth, but the former would not, I thought, cause the latter.
Reports are beginning to come out of China that the penetration of cellphones, the prevalence of Internet access, the use of text messaging and e-mail and the sheer proliferation of Web sites is beginning to loosen the grip of the government, albeit only slightly. It's hard to know what to make of these reports -- it's apparently much easier for news to get out of China than for those in China to figure out what's happening. But I'm beginning to get less skeptical -- it seems at least possible that some kind of mutual feedback loop is in action. Civil society and the Internet may be reinforcing each other, while the commisars watch warily.
None of this excuses American corporations for their blithe cooperation with the censors. But it might hint that ultimately, Chinese Communist Party power may be undone by its own success.