I come across examples every day, but let me start with a publicly reported event. Early this year, I learned of a tantalizing piece of news about an unpublicized government plan for the Beijing Olympics. In a conversation with someone involved in the preparations, I learned of a brilliant scheme to blunt potential foreign criticism during the Games. The Chinese government had drawn up a list of hotels, work spaces, Internet cafés, and other places where visiting journalists and dignitaries were most likely to use the Internet. At those places, and only there, normal “Great Firewall” restrictions would be removed during the Olympics. The idea, as I pointed out in an article about Chinese controls (“‘The Connection Has Been Reset,’” March Atlantic), was to make foreigners happier during their visit—and likelier to tell friends back home that, based on what they’d seen on their own computer screens, China was a much more open place than they had heard. This was subtle influence of the sort that would have made strategists from Sun Tzu onward proud.
The scheme displayed a sophisticated insight into outsiders’ mentality and interests. It recognized that foreigners, especially reporters, like being able to poke around unsupervised, try harder to see anything they’re told is out-of-bounds, and place extra weight on things they believe they have found without guidance. By saying nothing at all about this plan, the government could let influential visitors “discover” how freely information was flowing in China, with all that that implied. In exchange, the government would give up absolutely nothing. If visiting dignitaries, athletes, and commentators searched for a “Free Tibet” site or found porn that is usually banned in China, what’s the harm? They had seen worse back at home.
When the Olympics actually started, things did not go exactly according to plan. As soon as journalists began checking in at their Olympic hotels, they began complaining about all the Web sites they couldn’t reach. Chinese officials replied woodenly that this was China, and established Chinese procedures must be obeyed: Were the arrogant foreigners somehow suggesting that they were too good to comply with China’s sovereign laws? Unlike the brilliant advance scheme, all this was reported.
After huddling with officials from the International Olympic Committee, who had been touting China’s commitment to free information flow during the Games, the Chinese government quietly reversed its stance. For a few days, controls seemed to have been lifted for Internet users in many parts of Beijing—in my apartment, far from the main Olympic areas, I could get to usually blocked sites, like any BlogSpot blog, without using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Eventually the controls came back on for everyone except users in the special Olympic areas. By then the Chinese government had turned a potential PR masterstroke into a fiasco. Now what the foreign visitors could tell friends back home was that they knew firsthand that China’s Internet is indeed censored, that its government could casually break its promise of free information flow during the Games, and that foreign complaints could bully it back into line.