In my Bloomberg View column this week, I ask this question, and come up with a disconcerting answer: Not too soon. I was prompted to ask this question by something Hillary Clinton told me for my Atlantic cover story on the Arab Spring, that Chinese leaders were on a "fool's errand" if they thought they could stop the wave of democracy from washing over their people. In the long run, of course, I believe democracy, or some form of representative government, will have its day in China, because I make the assumption that the Chinese are like everyone else, in that they don't want other people telling them what to do, and what to say. But for the short- to medium-term, I think the Chinese government has concocted all sorts of ways to keep their people in check:
The Chinese also possess something absent in the autocratic Middle East: A technically sophisticated and all-encompassing apparatus of speech control, manned by secret police and abetted by private industry. It's true that Iran and Syria make earnest attempts at thought-suppression, but their efforts are amateur by comparison (and they pale by comparison with their more enthusiastic efforts to curb unacceptable speech through murder.)
An accurate accounting of the number of Chinese bureaucrats whose days are devoted to scrubbing impermissible thoughts from the Internet isn't known, but Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on Chinese Internet control at the New America Foundation, says the number rises into the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.
She listed for me a large number of organizations focused on speech suppression: The State Council Information Office, which has offices in every city and in every province; the propaganda department of the Communist Party; the Ministry of Public Security; the Ministry of State Security; the Ministry of Information, Industry and Technology; and the State Administration for Radio and Television. Plus, she said, private Internet companies all have departments that monitor their sites for speech deemed unacceptable by the government.
There is no sign that this system will soon come undone. And if it did, China could resort to more traditional modes of suppression: Schell describes a post-Tiananmen innovation of the Chinese system, the People's Armed Police, a million-man force entrusted with "supporting stability," as being better equipped to handle a Tiananmen-style revolt than the People's Liberation Army.
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