More on Hillary's speech

I have heard from many people who have a harsher view of Hillary Clinton's "Internet freedom" speech that I expressed earlier. Part of the explanation, and I say this respectfully but with an edge, is that these people may not have heard as many Secretary of State speeches as I have. Usually such utterances have no apparent architecture or thought-content whatsoever. The standard transition is, "Turning now to Africa..." To have as much structure as Sec. Clinton's speech did -- to emphasize the obvious-but-rarely-made-by-politicians point that the Internet is simultaneously an opportunity and a peril; to try to enumerate the specific areas both of opportunity and of peril; to attempt, at least, the rhetorical trope of "Four Freedoms" of the Internet age; and again to attempt to make the connection between political freedom of expression and long term development of a society -- this is not nothing. To anyone disgruntled by this speech, I say: show me a speech by a sitting Secretary of State in recent times that is substantially better or more logically coherent. (George Marshall's speech unveiling what became the Marshall Plan does not count.)  Graded in the only way that makes sense -- against other presentations of its kind -- it was an impressive piece of work.

Now... did it say exactly what the United States would do about practices it objects to, in China or elsewhere? Did it resolve other contradictions? No. And, of course not.  Again, if you're unhappy about this, you need to be exposed to more sitting-official speeches! Is it likely to help Google's cause? No -- as I pointed out! But rather than go much farther down that path, let me cite a message from a "Chinese-American-Canadian" reader who heard the speech in Shanghai and makes some sensible points:

"From my vantage point in Shanghai, I can say that the news of Google possibly leaving the country was briefly a topic of discussion several days ago but hasn't been brought up since. My prediction is that, if Google leaves, Baidu will temporarily monopolize the market before facing competition from a domestic startup. Yes, Google will take a lot of top computer science talent along with it, but top talent will continue returning to the mainland from overseas to make up for the brain drain. And I don't think Google's departure will significantly impact the ability of Chinese people to circumvent censorship or government repression, as there are dozens of sites and forums discussing Party mishaps and injustices that are officially censored in the state news organs.
"Back to Hillary's speech though, what exactly does she intend to accomplish? As the NYTimes article noted, human rights groups asked how this ethos of freedom and transparency would be enforced. For the time being, it seems practically unenforceable, so really her speech is a piece of elegant political posturing meant to please the Internet industry and human rights groups. At a time when Scott Brown's election to the US Senate appears to be a sharp rebuke of health care form (which could kill Obama's 2012 re-election), when unemployment continues to hover at 10% while Wall Street hands out record bonuses, when the Christmas Day underwear bombing sent anxiety into the hearts of Americans, Hillary's speech is meant to reassert America's moral leadership in the eyes of American citizens. She's sending a reasurring message along the lines of, "look, even though our economy is logjammed and Capitol Hill seems frustratingly inefficient, America is still the beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. Sure, China's economy grew at an 8.7% clip this year, but culturally they're just as backwards as Egypt and Uzbekistan. Yes, dear unemployed, under-employed, and anxious Americans, bask in the glory of your constitutional freedoms!"
"In short, Hillary's speech is a cleverly-framed pep talk to that side of the Pacific, but from this side, it sounds idealistic and ... frankly, useless. Firstly, there's no doubt here that the CIA spies on China (whether it's cyber-spying or the conventional kind or both, I don't know), so where's America's moral high ground? Secondly, Hillary is simply repeating the fact (known to all Chinese, even the least educated) that the government is corrupt, makes stupid and inhumane decisions on a regular basis, and then proceeds to cover up its mistakes. For now, most Chinese accept corruption and government repression as a fact of life, and they would like the system to change, but IMO, a foreign secretary of state lecturing the Chinese government is not going to facilitate this process. The Party has framed the Google issue as a business dispute, and they'll see Hillary's speech as America throwing down the gauntlet over a Chinese sovereignty issue, over whether a sovereign nation can make companies within its jurisdiction abide by local laws. Not only that, but the speech will be seen as an attempt to force American Internet standards on China. Now, if a Chinese blogger takes Google's side and extols the value of openness and transparency on the Internet, he will be seen as a Western pawn, undermining Chinese sovereignty in league with the world's superpower. He'll be considered a greater threat after Hillary's speech and perhaps subject to more severe censorship. It seems that every time Western leaders bring up human rights issues to China's leadership, they're doing it to please their domestic audiences and rarely succeed in improving the lives of the repressed groups in question."

And, while I'm at it, a note from a reader with a non-Chinese name:

"I've just started reading Paul Farmer's "The Uses of Haiti" which details the US government and business community's support for Haitian dictators. Therefore, when I saw this quotation you pulled from Sec. Clinton's speech today ("On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does."), I couldn't help but smirk and think, "Yes, the US takes aside, and it's usually the side against freedom." "

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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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