China’s ‘networked authoritarianism’

I came across a blog post by Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalist, free speech activist, expert on Chinese Internet censorship and co-founder of Global Voices Online.

“… China is pioneering what I call “networked authoritarianism.” Compared to classic authoritarianism, networked authoritarianism permits – or shall we say accepts the Internet’s inevitable consequences and adjusts – a lot more give-and-take between government and citizens than in a pre-Internet authoritarian state. While one party remains in control, a wide range of conversations about the country’s problems rage on websites and social networking services. The government follows online chatter, and sometimes people are even able to use the Internet to call attention to social problems or injustices, and even manage to have an impact on government policies. As a result, the average person with Internet or mobile access has a much greater sense of freedom – and may even feel like they have the ability to speak and be heard – in ways that weren’t possible under classic authoritarianism. It also makes most people a lot less likely to join a movement calling for radical political change. In many ways, the regime actually uses the Internet not only to extend its control but also to enhance its legitimacy….”

…Several people who contacted me about China’s Internet White Paper were surprised at the Chinese government’s enthusiasm for connectivity. Such enthusiasm does not jive with most American and European notions of how an authoritarian state would be run by a party that calls itself Communist. What’s important to understand is that Chinese authoritarianism in the Internet age is not the same as the crumbling, centrally-planned authoritarianism of the Eastern Bloc, disconnected from the Western capitalist world

…The CCP leadership recognizes that they can’t control everybody all the time if they’re going to be a technologically advanced global economic powerhouse. What’s more, high Internet penetration is necessary if the Chinese government wants to continue high rates of economic growth, which economists agree requires boosting domestic consumer demand as well as pushing Chinese companies to the cutting edge of technological innovation. China catapulted itself to become the world’s second largest economy by turning itself into the world’s factory. But Chinese labor has grown expensive compared to some other markets in poorer countries. In order to stay competitive and keep growing, China needs to transition from a manufacturing-fueled economy to an economy fueled by domestic consumption at home, while being an innovator for advanced technologies and services that can compete with American and European companies…

Thanks to Adam Greenfield for pointing her out (see comment labelled AG) in reference to Chinese activity around IPv6 and their ‘Internet of Things’ policy. He added the somber reminder, that at “every infrastructural advance, [there’s] a watershed moment where the governing design principles of the technology itself begin to influence the types of societal experiences they might produce.”.

credits: image: Surfers at an internet cafe in China Photograph: Dan Chung

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