Outsiders who follow Chinese events have known for years about Roland Soong's EastSouthWestNorth site*, which draws from Chinese-language and English-language sources for reports and analysis.

I've just seen this post, from a few days ago, which strikes me as something that people who don't normally follow Chinese events should know about. It's the text of a speech Soong prepared for last weekend's annual Chinese Bloggers conference (but did not deliver, for family-emergency reasons). In it, he discusses the differences the Internet has, and has not, made in the Chinese government's ability to control information and maintain power within China.

This is a subject easily misunderstood in the United States, where people tend to assume either that the cleansing power of the Internet will ultimately make government efforts at info-control pointless, or, on the contrary, that the bottling-up effectiveness of the Great Firewall will protect the government from the power of an informed citizenry.  (My own Atlantic article on the subject here.)

Soong elegantly illustrates why such categorical assumptions miss the complexity of what's going on. The whole speech is worth reading, but the passage below is especially important for Americans. First he describes the way info would flow when bloggers and net connections first became significant in China, around 2003:

1. A bad thing happens somewhere in China (such as police brutality, government malfeasance, a forced eviction, a coal mine disaster, etc).

2. The local government suppresses all information.

3. All media reports are censored.  (But if it wasn't reported in traditional media, there are other alternatives now on the Internet.)

4. The victims begin a petitioning process up the hierarchy in order to seek justice.  The road is long and hard, and nothing ever comes out of it.

5. The Internet forums/blogs rushed to report on the case.  But within approximately 48 hours, all traces of information are erased by order of the authorities.  (Thus, one of the excitements of my blogging activity was to find and translate that information within this time window.)

6. Western media catch wind of the incident, and follow through.  This creates an international scandal.

7. Senior Chinese officials take notice, and corrective actions are taken.

Then he describes what has changed in the past five years, in this 2008 update:

1. A bad thing happens somewhere in China (such as police brutality, government malfeasance, a forced eviction, a coal mine disaster, etc).
2. The local government suppresses all information.

3. All media reports are censored.

4. The victims begin a petitioning process up the hierarchy in order to seek justice.  The road is long and hard and nothing ever results.

5. The Internet forums/blogs rushed to report on the case.

6a. Within 48 hours, all traces of negative (i.e. against the authorities) information are erased by order of the authorities, or else by self-censorship at the portals/forums/blog service providers.

6b. Positive (i.e. on behalf of the authorities) information appear from Internet commentators who are paid by the authorities for their efforts

5. Western media catch wind of the incident, and follow through with an international incident.

7.  But there are just too many portals/forums/blogs that important information will eventually seep through.

8. Senior Chinese officials take notice, and corrective actions are taken.

He lists various reasons for the change, and then comes down to the one he considers most important:

You will note the role of western media has been eliminated from the process model...  If once upon a time western media coverage, which affects the opinion of western politicians and citizens, mattered to the Chinese people, this is no longer the case.

In the political realm, the Chinese people no longer have to believe in the rhetoric of freedom, liberty, democracy, sovereignty and human rights.  The war in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison, the Guantanamo camp, hurricane Katrina and other misconduct took care of all that.  Why would the Chinese people be interested in what American president George W. Bush have to preach to them about freedom, liberty, democracy, sovereignty and human rights?  When the western media invoke those terms, the reaction from the Chinese people is: "Look within yourselves and fix your own problems first!"

In the economic realm, the financial tsunami of 2008 took care of any credibility in the Washington consensus.  In its place was an as-yet-undefined Beijing consensus which has less specifics than the general idea of self-determination.  Why would the Chinese people be interested in what Alan Greenspan and Henry Paulson have to tell them about how to run their economy when they have failure on their hands?

There is more in the same vein. Sobering but significant reading.
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* The name of Soong's site refers to the way directions are given in Chinese. By this system, Seattle would be in the "Westnorth" corner of the United States, and Atlanta in the "Eastsouth."

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