David Cameron, Meet Hu Jintao

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In my article in the current issue (subscribe!) about this spring's abortive "Jasmine Protests" in China, I mention how hard the Chinese authorities cracked down on social media, as a way of thwarting protests before they happened and of apprehending would-be organizers. In certain parts of Beijing and other cities, text-message transmission -- a main means of Chinese communication -- was blocked altogether. The "real" versions of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are banned, and the Chinese counterparts were heavily interfered-with.

Obviously constraints on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and similar social media were hallmarks of autocratic response during the "Arab Spring" protests as well.

Cameron.jpgDid David Cameron not read a single foreign news story this past year? Did he have no idea what camp he was placing himself in, with his call to block social media as a way of controlling violence in England? ("When people are using social media for violence we need to stop them" etc. "Free flow of information can be used for good, but it can also be used for ill." During the Jasmine era, I read more or less those views, from Chinese officials, about the need to get tough.)

Let's stipulate that violence and looting are different from non-violent protest, and much more deserving of being stopped; that the United Kingdom, despite being more thickly covered with surveillance cameras than China, is overall a vastly freer society; and that unlike the United States, with its First Amendment, the United Kingdom has never had an absolutist commitment to freedom of speech.

Still, this was an obtuse -- and harmful -- thing to say. Obtuse because of the failure to pay homage to the liberty-vs-security tradeoff that is central to the social bargain of all free societies. (Compare the Norwegian Prime Minister's response after the horrific killings there.) Harmful, because for years to come any authoritarian government that blocks people's ability to communicate -- in Syria, Libya, Burma, China, wherever -- will have an obvious retort to any Western critique. This is just what the Brits did when things got tense, they can say. If it's good enough for the UK and the Mother of Parliaments, how can it be wrong for us? It's all nice to talk about liberty and privacy when things are going smoothly, they will conclude; but your governments, too, are ruthless when they feel threatened. We're really all the same. (For similar reasons, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and U.S. acceptance of torture and suspension of civil liberties over the past decade badly undercut America's ability to stand in judgment of abuses elsewhere.)

I can barely imagine the pressure on people of all sorts in England, but this was not a grace-under-pressure response.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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