The Chinese government recently issued new rules to strengthen Internet regulations. Most notable is the real-name requirement for Weibo (microblog) accounts – China’s equivalent of Twitter. Some Weibo users have attested to an increase in government monitoring and self-censorship by hosting companies. Many are decrying this as China’s further violation of freedom of expression. The reality is far more complicated.
More than a decade ago, when China’s Internet was in its infancy with a few million users, the government made it clear that it would exercise political oversight on the nascent cyberspace while allowing it to grow. Many experts then predicted that such efforts were doomed to fail. The Internet, they said, was to be a brave new world that could not be controlled. There were only two possible outcomes: a freely expanding Internet beyond the reach of political authority, or an Internet stifled by government control and unable to realize its potential social and economic benefits. Rupert Murdoch famously proclaimed that advances in communications technology posed an “unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere.”
Confounding these experts, neither has happened in China. By any standard, the Chinese Internet is one of the most vibrant economic and social cyberspaces in the world. Some 450 million users communicate, transact, and entertain in it. Entrepreneurial companies have created tens of billions of dollars in economic value. China’s search engine, e-commerce, and online video businesses are among the world’s leading companies.
On Taobao, China’s eBay, millions of mom-and-pop shops are conducting billions of dollars of transactions per month. On QQ and Sina, the two largest Weibo services, 200 million users are active – expressing their views on anything and everything from sex to official corruption.
Concurrently, a massive government-directed monitoring system combined with self-regulation by hosting companies makes China’s Internet highly controlled by political authority. Facebook and Twitter are banned while their domestic versions flourish. In a well-publicized spat with the government, Google’s search presence was curtailed while its other businesses have continued. When social crises occur, keyword barriers are erected to prevent amplifications that threaten stability.
China’s size and its centralized governance have enabled the creation of a parallel Internet universe connected to and separate from the one outside. There are leaks, and many virtual private networks are available. Minor leaks are ignored. When leaks become important, they are plugged, and sometimes bluntly. When the Jasmine Revolution became an issue, search engines simply blanked out the word “jasmine.” However, it is a mistake to think that all the regulators do is censor.
China is pursuing a distinctive response to the Internet. Nearly half a century ago, at the onset of the information revolution, a pioneering thinker on the cyberspace, Norbert Wiener, authored an influential book entitled “Cybernetics.” Mr. Wiener separated human responses to new challenges into two types: ontogenetic and phylogenetic. Ontogenetic activities are organized and carried out through centrally designed institutions to shape the development of society.
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.
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.