Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hillary puts the Chinese government in strange company

Say what you will about the conceptual architecture and core message in Hillary Clinton's speech on Internet freedom -- and I agree that both are impressive -- she also put "authoritarian governments" in some strikingly noxious company:

Violent extremists, criminal cartels, sexual predators, and authoritarian governments all seek to exploit these global networks.

Government censorship of Internet access and expression deserves to be condemned. But this particularly grouping strikes me as maladroit in a particularly HIllaryesque fashion. Strike that line -- and a similar association or two elsewhere in the speech -- and I wonder whether the Chinese response would have been as vehement.

Here is the more substantive -- and unexceptionable -- part of Clinton's case for an open flow of information and challenge to the Chinese:
To use market terminology, a publicly listed company in Tunisia or Vietnam that operates in an environment of censorship will always trade at a discount relative to an identical firm in a free society. If corporate decision makers don’t have access to global sources of news and information, investors will have less confidence in their decisions over the long term. Countries that censor news and information must recognize that from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech. If businesses in your nations are denied access to either type of information, it will inevitably impact on growth.

Increasingly, companies are making the issue of internet and information freedom a greater consideration in their business decisions. I hope that their competitors and foreign governments will pay close attention to this trend. The most recent situation involving Google has attracted a great deal of interest. And we look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make its announcement. And we also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent.

The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous. There are so many people in China now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century. Now, the United States and China have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship.

Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.

I have argued elsewhere that Obama, like most American statesmen, expresses a Fukuyaman faith that sheer competitive economic pressure pushes countries toward a market economy, rule of law, freedom of information and democracy. Hillary is making that argument here (as Obama did  in his meeting with students in Shanghai) -- you can't compete fully if you restrict information.

And as the Times coverage of official Chinese reaction to Clinton's speech implicitly suggests, Internet freedom may may be a uniquely effective point at which to (accu)puncture the nationalist sentiment that the Chinese government is generally able to tap in response to U.S. pressure to change policies:
One big question is whether ordinary Chinese will, to any large degree, accept China’s arguments. Although urban, middle-class Chinese often support government policies on sovereignty issues such as Tibet or Taiwan, they generally deride media censorship.

That feeling is especially pronounced among Chinese who refer to themselves as netizens. China has the most Internet users of any country, 384 million by official count, but also the most sophisticated system of Internet censorship, nicknamed the Great Firewall.
History -- and the Chinese people -- may be on the U.S. side on this one.

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