Browsing the web for something to write about and finding little, I turned for a moment to that low-hanging fruit, the China op-ed piece. This was, in essence, an act of cowardice on my part. Anyone with a browser and a few minutes can find something written about China that’s easy enough to pull apart, and it’s been a while since the barrel of this blog was pointed at some hapless Western pundit. Luckily, in my search, I ran across something a bit more interesting in the Global Times, a Chinese paper whose editorial pages I have also contributed to from time to time:
In some cases, China’s Internet may even be too open. For example, regulations regarding publishing sensitive or patent-protected corporate information online remain largely non-existent, a clear oversight as China wishes to strengthen its knowledge economy.
As this example shows, there are many good reasons for controlling the Internet. Nearly all countries operate restrictions on obscene or offensive material as well as sensitive corporate data, documents relating to national security, and so on.
Like other governments, Chinese authorities are well within their rights to operate restriction policies according to the national situation.
I am taking this quote out of context. The author’s overall point is that China’s internet policy is far too opaque; probably almost no one would disagree with that. But this argument I’ve excerpted is worth examining for a moment.
First of all, the implication that Chinese internet censorship is acceptable and “normal” just because other countries censor their internet is misleading. Yes, most countries restrict the internet in some ways, but this is still a terrible analogy. “Nearly all countries” do not censor their internet to the extent that China does. China is, indeed, one of the worst countries on the planet when it comes to censorship — and I’d cite evidence to support that claim, but the first five links I found were all — surprise — censored.
More interesting to me is the idea that China has the “right” to restrict its internet as it sees fit (an idea that seems to be growing more popular by day with American lawmakers, interestingly enough). Does China, or any nation, have such a right? Many advocacy groups say no, but few countries have yet bought fully into the idea that uncensored internet access is a human right, least of all China. And, especially in China where the system of internet access is largely the product of State-owned telecommunications companies, it may be unfair to suggest that the government doesn’t have the right to control information that’s being transmitted over wires it (generally speaking) owns.
But China owns the newspapers, too, yet plenty of people would argue that freedom of the press is a fundamental human right. This is not a question that can be answered, of course — and even if we do all agree I find Beijing unlikely to care — but I put the question to you anyway: Does China’s government really have the right to control the internet?
(As a sidenote, check out the most recent Sinica podcast for what is presumably a much more in depth discussion of China’s internet. I say “presumably” because it is loading preposterously slowly here so I have not yet had a chance to listen to all of it.)