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Google's Eric Schmidt: Internet will let Chinese rise up

In an interview, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen say the connectivity of the digital age will empower individuals as never before. This will make revolutionary movements against autocratic regimes such as China easier to start – but harder to finish.

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The dilemma that citizens or dissidents will have in the future is that you can’t storm a ministry with a smart phone. At the end of the day, there is a lot that connectivity can do to get people in the streets. But there is a fundamental need for alternative leadership and institutions to go beyond mobilization and actually change regimes.

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Connectivity will make revolutionary movements easier to start, but harder to finish.

So, the future of autocratic regimes in the digital age will be some of the old, and some of the new.

SCHMIDT: Yet, undeniably, the fact that billions more people will be online, even under autocratic regimes, will mean billions more with more options in life or who will be witnesses with smart phones to government repression. Think of all the billions that will come online in rural areas who won’t need to urbanize to join the marketplace. Think of the billions who will be able to go beyond rote learning and engage in interactive critical thinking outside the classroom.

GARDELS: The other side of the coin of shared data and connectivity, as you say in the book, is the ability now of citizens to “police the police.” Some have called this “sous-veillance,” or the monitoring of government from below.

Sina Weibo in China is a good example of this. Every day, 600 million people criticize the government through microblogs on every issue from tainted milk to train wrecks and pollution to corrupt officials. Surely this is a huge power shift?

SCHMIDT: I agree with that. Weibo is a kind of combination of Facebook and Twitter. It could turn out to be a significant political force because it is not completely censorable. Even dictators care about their reputations. Even monopoly governments can be shamed.

In the book we talk about how the Weibo outrage over the Wenzhou bullet train accident led to exposure of the corrupt railroad minister, who was put in jail.

COHEN: We also saw in Juarez, Mexico, how the power of citizen connectivity can shame corrupt officials into cleaning up their act. Citizen activists there were able to photograph corrupt acts by the police on their smart phones and spread the images in the very communities where the police lived. Even in places that have long lived with corruption, this online shaming will ultimately change behavior.

GARDELS: In your book you make the fascinating observation about the emergence of two parallel worlds – the virtual alongside the physical.

Because of the power of Weibo in China, the authorities’ strategy is to ensure that no two people allowed to vent on the net ever meet in the street to start another Tiananmen-type protest.

Will the physical repression be able to contain the virtual protest in the end? Will cyberspace one day spill over into real space?

SCHMIDT: That is a question that must haunt China’s leaders: How long can they allow a tidal wave of complaints in the virtual world, but crack down on any action in the real world?

The Chinese I’ve spoken to believe that, eventually, the digital world will win out. Ultimately, the authorities will run out of police, censors, and other tools of oppression.

The citizens will overwhelm the source of oppression against them.

There is a negative view – that the tools of oppression will create a data record from the virtual world which can ultimately be used to imprison, jail, or otherwise terrorize all of the dissidents. In other words, the tools win.

What we are seeing today is a fight between the two models.

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