Given the NBA’s recent, uh, maneuvering over China, here’s John Lanchester, writing in the London Review of Books, on China’s approach to the Internet, a handy reminder that neither growing prosperity or some imaginary arc of history trend towards liberty.
The whole piece is well worth reading, but here’s an extract:
In the words of the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the internet is a ‘nutcracker to open societies’. This view has adherents in China too. Liu Xiaobo — the first Nobel laureate to die in prison since Carl von Ossietzky in Nazi Germany — said the internet was ‘God’s gift’ to a democratic China. The celebrity dissident artist Ai Weiwei says: ‘The internet cannot be controlled. And if it is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It is that simple.’
The CCP [Chinese Communist Party], doesn’t agree. Its position is the diametric opposite of the Western received wisdom that the internet is necessarily and in its essence a threat to the authoritarian state . . .
The most important of these diametric opposites concerns Western liberal values. In 2013, an amazing paper from the highest reaches of the CCP, catchily known as ‘Document Number Nine’, or ‘Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere’, came to light . . . . The most important of these diametric opposites concerns Western liberal values. In 2013, an amazing paper from the highest reaches of the CCP, catchily known as ‘Document Number Nine’, or ‘Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere’, came to light . . . .
. . . Sina Weibo, usually referred to just as Weibo, is Twitter, which has been blocked in China since 2009. The story of the Chinese internet pivots around Weibo, because it was that company that came closest to embodying the opening up of information that internet advocates see as the main transformational point of the technology. Weibo launched in August 2009 and over the next few years was the site of an unprecedented new freedom for Chinese citizens. People used it to connect and communicate and, increasingly, to complain . . .
This was the context for Document Number Nine, and it was also the point at which the CCP launched its counterattack. First, the Weibo accounts of prominent critics were ‘harmonised’ — in other words, deleted overnight. Then a conference was called for ‘Big Vs’, people with well-followed verified accounts, analogous to Twitter’s blue tick. At the conference, the newly formed Cyberspace Administration of China reminded the assembled big shots about their ‘social responsibility’ to the ‘interests of the state’ and ‘core socialist values’. Two weeks later, on 23 August 2013, the prominent investor and Weibo activist Charles Xue was arrested. He turned up shortly afterwards in a Chinese Central Television interview from his prison cell, weeping and apologising for his irresponsibility and vanity.
Such TV interviews have become a staple feature of the CCP’s internet crackdown, helped by a new law, passed in September 2013, which threatens three years in prison to anyone who shares a rumour that ‘upsets social order’ and is shared five hundred times or clicked on five thousand times. For people with Weibo followings well into the millions, the law effectively banned the posting of anything even potentially controversial . . .