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Rise of the dragon: China isn't censoring the Internet. It's making it work.

Beijing recently strengthened Internet regulations, particularly on the popular microblogging site Weibo. Critics warn that more government monitoring and self-censorship by hosting companies further violates freedom of expression. The reality is far more complicated.

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The phylogenetic response, on the other hand, is evolutionary. It is analogous to the way bacteria behave in mutual interaction without organizational oversight. The development of human civilization has always been characterized by the constant struggle between these two opposites – the ontogenetic attempts to control the phylogenetic and the latter’s undermining of the former. The relationship is both adversarial and symbiotic, much like yin and yang.

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In today’s context, political authority is ontogenetic while the cyberspace is phylogenetic. The health of human society depends on the balance between the two. When they are out of balance, the body politic falls sick with catastrophic consequences.

The easy scalability of the Internet makes it perhaps the most powerful phylogenetic invasion of the body politic in recent times. Bill Davidow, in his book, “Overconnected: the Promise and Threat of the Internet,” talks about how the Internet’s “hyper-connection” can spread “contagions” like pandemics. The Internet is not an unmitigated force for good. It can also do harm to human society.

The approach of the Chinese government is similar to that of Chinese medicine. The emphasis is on the Internet being an organic part of the body politic. Too much intervention is as bad as too little. Constant monitoring is necessary so that one knows when and how much to intervene. The word in Chinese is tiao, which means continuous tuning of a complex system.

Social media has enabled the Chinese government to overcome an age-old problem of poor feedback of ground problems to the center because of too many layers in between, risking explosions due to over-suppression. Social media brings such problems to the attention of China’s leaders. The train accident in Wenzhou last year was a good example. Like a Chinese physician feeling the pulse of a patient, China’s leaders were alerted to a serious imbalance and reacted comprehensively. The result will be a better and safer high-speed rail system.

The current health of China’s cyber universe is not bad. Economically and socially, the Internet is flourishing. Politically, it is being used to help maintain social stability despite rapid change. Never before in history have such a large number of people undergone such rapid change. Old values have been undermined before new values develop, leading to crass materialism. Regulations have not kept up with the new realities, causing frequent problems of public safety. Social and economic divisions have widened considerably.

Social media provides a safety valve, alerting the government to problems that can get out of control. Both the over-amplification and over-suppression of these problems can make them explode and destabilize the country, which is the last thing China needs after finally leaving behind two centuries of war and revolution.

While China’s parallel universe is inevitably being influenced by the outside, the reverse is also happening. India now demands that Facebook and Google remove derogatory materials. Other countries will follow. Eventually, as in the real world, cyberspace will not be flat but will have interconnected mountains and valleys.

George Yeo is a former foreign minister of Singapore, and Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist in Shanghai.

© 2012 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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