8:   On the Blogger Front at Home and Abroad


For decades we have been fed the pap that technology will eventually bring us democracy, freedom of expression as well as a more equitable distribution of the national and international income. The reality, however, seems to have moved in the opposite direction. And when Communist China went capitalist in a big imperialist way, the lure of the biggest market ever proved irresistible to the American system whose survival depends on exponential growth. The official Washington credo was Technology would come to the rescue where our institutions faltered. America gasping for growth-space, rushed into China with a cheque-book in one hand and a gun in the other. The corrupt, ex-Marxist bureaucrats sized them up, and played their cards like masters. Particularly on the information front, where the supposed corporate democrats were supposed to bear the promise of democracy the painless way.

It is important to keep score of this latest confrontation of the forces of social liberation and enslavement affected by Internet technology on two continents. To Chinese the Internet, already ambiguous as both an object of commerce and a marketing revolution, was in addition the site of freedom’s last stand. At home, where alternate views, including our own history, have been systematically suppressed in our media and universities. It is important to keep score of this latest confrontation of the forces of social liberation and enslavement in a new firmament.

Our source is entirely The New York Times (19/02, Nicholas D. Kristof’s column, "China’s Cyberdissidents and the Yahoos at Yahoo"):

"Suppose that Anne Frank had maintained an e-mail account while hiding in 1944, and that the Nazis had asked Yahoo for cooperation in tracking her down. It seems, based on Yahoo’s behavior in China, that it might have complied.

"Granted, China is not remotely Nazi Germany. But when members of Congress pilloried executives of Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems at a hearing about their China operations, there were three important people who couldn’t attend. They were Shi Tao, Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun, three cyberdissidents whom Yahoo helped send to prison for terms of 10 years, 8 years and 4 years, respectively.

"Only Mr. Shi, a Chinese journalist has gotten much attention. But Chinese court documents in each case say that Yahoo handed over information that helped convict them. We have no idea how many more dissidents are also in prison because of Yahoo.

"No wonder there’s an Internet campaign to boycott Yahoo, as But it’s a mistake to think of all the American companies as equal sinners, for Google appears to have done nothing wrong at all. Here’s my take on the four companies. Yahoo sold its soul and is a national disgrace. It is still dissembling, and nobody should touch Yahoo until it provides financially for the families of the three men it helped lock up and establishes annual fellowships in their names to bring Web journalists to America for study programs.

Grading Disgrace by the Yahoo Standard

"Microsoft has also been cowardly, but nothing like Yahoo. Microsoft responded to a Chinese request by recently shutting down the outspoken blog of Michael Anti (who now works for The New York Times bureau). Microsoft also censors sensitive words in the Chinese version of its blog-hosting software, the blogger Rebecca MacKinnon found that it rejected as ‘prohibited language’ the title ‘I Love Freedom of Speech, Human Rights and Democracy.’

"Cisco sells equipment to China that is used to maintain censorship controls, but as far as I can tell similar equipment is widely available, including from Chinese companies like Huawei. Cisco also peddles its equipment enthusiastically to the Chinese police. In short, Cisco is a bit sleazy, but nothing like Yahoo.

"Google strikes me as innocent of wrongdoing. True, Google has offered a censored version of its Chinese search engine, which will turn out the kind of results that the Communist Party would like (and thus will not be slowed down by filters and other implements that now make it unattractive to Chinese users). But Google kept its unexpurgated (and thus frustratingly slow) Chinese-language search engine available, so in effect gave Chinese users more choices rather than fewer.

"Representative Chris Smith, who called the hearing and drew the Anne Frank analogy, has introduced a bill to regulate Internet companies abroad, but that’s an overreaction. For, as Mr. Anti noted in his own critique, the legislation would just push out foreign companies and leave Chinese with rigidly censored search engines like Baidu. That said, American companies shouldn’t be abjectly surrendering. Microsoft could publish a list of the political terms that it blocks out as ‘prohibited language.’ Google could post all the websites its blocks. They can push back.

"In any case, the tech companies are right about a fundamental truth: the Internet is a force for change in China. There are already 110 million Internet users in China. And 13 million bloggers – largely outnumbering the 30,000 censors.

"A study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School found that China managed to block 90 percent of Web sites about the Tiananmen massacre, 31 percent of sites about independence of Tibet, and 82 percent of sites with a derogatory version of the name of former President Jiang Zemin. In short some is blocked, but a lot gets through.

"So think of a Trojan horse that will change China. Yahoo has acted disgracefully, but the bigger picture is that the Internet the Internet is taking pluralism to China – and profound change may come sooner rather than later.

"It’s the blogs that are closed that get attention and the cyberdissidents who are arrested who get headlines just as in America it’s the planes that crash that make the evening news. But millions of Chinese blogs and podcasts are taking off, and they are inflicting on the Communist Party the ancient punishments of ‘ling chi,’ usually translated as ‘death by a thousand cuts.’"

That appraisal seems so encouraging, that it calls for translation into First World terms. In the US a not dissimilar debate is going on in US Congress on the Bush security system. However, in our universities, criticism not only of alternate economic models, but those that brought the world out of the destruction of WWII and to a quarter of a century of relative prosperity and increased social fairness have been wiped out far more thoroughly than the Chinese bloggers – God bless them. And the results have contributed to the military adventures of the Near East. These can only go on increasing unless challenged. The discussions in Congress – completely absent in our Parliament – never get close enough to the phenomenon of suppression on behalf of the official free market model in our media, and universities. No alternate theory, let alone one that was put to the test over decades, should be cut off dead. If it is defective, its defects if they are smashing enough to warrant suppression, can be brought into the open and disposed of in free debate in a matter of hours. Suppress our own history and the record of alternate ideas and you destroy society’s ability to learn from previous defeats and successes – a situation not unrelated to the one exploding in China. The subject of freedom of academic and media freedom of discussion is itself long overdue.

In the process the gap between the present curriculum in our universities and the non-official virtually "underground" economic movements has become ever deeper and unbridged. The disappointing record of the more or less heterodox economic conference taken over by major universities as a marketing device is a saddening case in point. The failure to allow a distinguished panel at a conference at Cambridge University on whether derivatives should be regulated – and to which the experts submitted – is a case in point. Especially since the major Enron scandal – derivative-driven – had already taken place at the time. The role of our universities in failing to defend the heritage of economic thought warrants appraisal and grading in parallel to the excellent New York Times assessment on the American Internet search corporations in China. To remedy that retired academic economists whose livelihood no longer depends on conformity have a special role to play. The Internet is an inevitable medium for this. The parallel with the plight of the bloggers in China is saddening. The two situations should be challenged in tandem. And the role of political parties in the cover-ups cannot be left out.


– from Economic Reform, March 2006