Over the past day and a half Google has begun rolling out its "Google+" social networking features*. And immediately this response from the government of the country where more people use the internet and social networking systems than any other on Earth:
Yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival I was on a panel with other people who have been dealing with China for years or decades -- Orville Schell of the Asia Society, Robert Hormats of the State Department, David Schlesinger of Thomson Reuters, moderated by Josh Tyrangiel of Bloomberg Businessweek -- on the topic of "How Much Freedom is Enough" for China. Obviously a lot depends on the definitions of "Enough" in that question -- and of "Freedom," "Is," and so on. Obviously too some of the most familiar bromides** about the interaction of freedom and China's development are wrong or oversimplified. But it is a question that struck me with special force on seeing this latest instant reflex from the government.
In an article coming out soon in the magazine I go into some aspects of the tension between the growing maturity of China's economy and civil society, and the recently tightened controls on discussion, association, and citizen activity in most forms. This is also a theme in the book I've been wrapping up this year. When I saw this morning's announcement, I thought of an interview I'd heard in Beijing early this year, when official nervousness about contagion from the "Arab Spring" led to a new tightening on internet controls. From part of a description for my book:
>>Between brownouts on my internet connection, in the spring of 2011 I listened to an analysis by a Western tech expert of how Chinese university officials rationalized the blockage. "They are kind of embarrassed," he said. "It suggests a kind of second-rateism for the country, even now. It also suggests a kind of profound defensiveness about legitimacy."
The reaction [among the globalized "thinking class"] on the Chinese side, he said, "may instantiate itself as embarrassment, since they think it makes China a little bit backward." But the real issue, he said, is that in any line of work that depended on international communication, "there was a sense that this could make China second-rate. If you're an internet professional, this is not the place you'll want to work if you want to be competing with the best. This will be a place where people can make money. But they will go to Silicon Valley -- or India [or other countries he could have mentioned] to be part of innovation."<<
This is a huge and complex theme that will play itself out for a very long time. I'm not trying to resolve it today, just noting a particularly stark illustration.
* Which I've started using and will say more about in a while.
** The main bromides:
The Arc of History bromide: that increasing wealth and technological sophistication will "inevitably" make China a freer society;
The Efficient Authoritarianism bromide: that Chinese officialdom has figured out a sustainable way to have both a creative, innovative economy and a controlled political/media/intellectual system;
The Material-Minded Chinese People bromide: that the Chinese public has well and truly internalized the idea that a rising GDP is the only thing that matters;
The Rise of the East, Decline of the West bromide: that the Chinese model is proving its basic superiority to squabbling Western democratic systems that can't pay attention to big problems. This one is often illustrated with gape-jawed accounts of the latest Chinese infrastructure achievement.
And so on. There is something to each of these, and a lot that they all miss. Some day I'll compile a master bromide list.