The Internet and CNN Won't (Soon) Free China

Many have heralded communications technologies such as satellite dishes, fax machines, cellular phones, and the Internet as powerful weapons in the fight for democracy in closed societies. Not long ago, media mogul Rupert Murdoch boasted that his empire's small satellite dishes were an "unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes."

Hopeful sentiments have been echoed by various high-level government officials in the United States, including President Clinton. Optimism surrounding the communications revolution is based primarily on the assumption that once citizens in closed societies become aware of the freedom enjoyed by citizens of democracies, they will mobilize and push for reforms.

The key role of fax machines in organizing the student-led pro-democracy protest at China's Tiananmen Square in 1989 is often cited, as is the effective use of the Internet by Burmese pro-democracy groups, such as the Free Burma Coalition, to keep foreign companies from investing in the country (last year PepsiCo sold its 40 percent share in a joint venture in Burma, bowing to such pressure).

Since much of the enthusiasm surrounding the impact of the current communications revolution is framed in terms of US policy toward the People's Republic of China, the largest nondemocratic nation on earth, the PRC is a fitting model with which to evaluate these views.

In a press conference earlier this year, Mr. Clinton stated that liberty in China is "inevitable," to a great extent because of "the availability of information from the outside world." (Naturally, this recent influx of information is made possible by the new communications technologies.) But those optimistically relying on the communications revolution to spread democracy often overlook an obvious fact: The possibility of democratic change is predicated not only on the existence and use of new communications technology, but also, and more significantly, on the extent to which people have access to it. In the case of China this access is quite limited.

Out of reach for most

The yearly per capita income in China is less than $700. It should be no surprise, therefore, that most Chinese - except for corporations and the small but burgeoning middle class - can't afford costly new communications technology. In a country with a population of approximately 1.2 billion, there are only 50,000-100,000 Internet subscribers. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the primary Chinese regulatory agency for the Internet, stated that by the end of last year only 30 percent of the 20,000 Internet accounts it had sold went to local individuals. The remainder were bought by corporations.

CNN broadcasts, considered by many to be instrumental in the proliferation of democratic ideals, are received on satellite TV in only 1.4 million Chinese households. Also, there are only 7.3 million cellular phone subscribers in China. In contrast, the US, with a population roughly one-fifth that of China, has 49 million subscribers.

It is widely accepted that the emergence of a broad middle class paves the way for democracy. Its growing purchasing power results in heightened expectations and eventually leads to demands for increased political participation. Taiwan, a model of such theory, had its first democratic presidential election last year. Common sense dictates that a large middle class that can afford current technology is a necessity before the communications revolution can be relevant in the struggle for democracy. China isn't there yet.

Admittedly, the communications revolution promotes economic growth by supplying information and facilitating transactions, thus in a sense assisting in the creation and expansion of a middle class. Nevertheless, it chiefly acts as a catalyst towards actual democratic change once a large middle class is in place.

Traditional theory linking democracy to middle class development, as outlined above, might, however, prove unreliable in the case of China. Even if the communications technology becomes affordable and available someday to a broad Chinese middle class, governmental restrictions would continue to limit access to it. At present, most communications innovations are heavily regulated by the government, which is concerned with incoming politically sensitive material.

Since the events at Tiananmen Square, for example, the government has limited the use of fax machines. There are also restrictions on the sale and use of personal satellite dishes, as well as censorship of satellite TV broadcasts. A short while ago, at the demand of the Chinese government, Rupert Murdoch dropped the BBC's news from his Star TV network broadcasts to China.

Stifling the Internet

The government is developing a whole infrastructure to regulate the Internet. At present, political information on the Internet is primarily filtered by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. If the Chinese government is able to maintain a tight grip on information, even after a substantial middle class has formed, the political landscape may begin to look like a magnified version of Singapore's - with a large middle class and a per capita income comparable to the US, and yet continued censorship of information via Internet and satellite dishes.

Nevertheless, if democracy is to have even a chance of winning in China, a large middle class remains a prerequisite. If the economic growth achieved by China in the last few years continues, the development of a large middle class is almost certain. That, however, might take a few decades. Until then, the communications revolution will have to wait in the wings before it can take the stage as a supporting actor in the possible drama for democracy.

* Arslan Malik is a student at the University of Virginia School of Law. He is working this summer at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. These views are his own.

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