Al Jazeera Unplugged: Kaiser Kuo on China

This is a live blog. It may contain grammatical errors, but I tried to be as true to the essence of the comments as possible?

Google’s announcement in January that it would shut down rather than continue to submit to censorship in China. It created a lot of column inches about foreign businesses operating in China and also about cybersecurity.

Kaiser believes that focusing on censorship and The Great Firewall in China is actually crippling our ability to deal with China. It’s a too convenient narrative. He used the image of Sergey Brin standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen? Square. The Chinese internet is very robust and interesting and deserves attention in its own right. Quoting a Chinese scholar, he says that The Great Firewall is being seen as the Iron Curtain 2.0. The US government is sending very clear messages by referring to this The Great Firewall as another Iron Curtain.

We have this image of Chinese netizens as a group of skinny patriotic hackers or cosmopolitan aspiring democrats. Often, he says that the reality is somewhere in between. Chinese rarely go outside of China to see content. They very rarely bump into The Great Firewall, although Twitter, YouTube and other western sites are blocked. He finds that regrettable. They often bump into self-discipline censorship. Any site whatsoever will receive from any number of ministries what the provisos on content. They will redact words or ask you to close accounts. If companies don’t comply, they can face penalties all the way up to being shut down.

However, the focus on censorship obscures the development of technology and the internet in China. There are 404m internet users in China, more users than people in the US. There are 800m mobile handset subscribers in China. There are companies such as the instant messaging service QQ, which has 80% of all internet users. The number of accounts, because of multiple accounts by individuals, dwarfs the number of internet users in China.

The internet in China can be described more as an entertainment super-highway rather than an information super-highway. In the last two or three years, internet censorship has become more draconian in China. More sites have been blocked, and the restrictions on domestic sites has become more onerous. At the same time, in recent years, the internet has emerged as a full fledged public sphere in Chinese life, something that has never existed in China.

There is discussion about issues that are assumed to be off limits, but there is a great level of creativity to conduct these discussions. Officials at all levels of government are constantly taking the temperature of online opinion. You see policy decisions changing in response to online public opinion. A picture was taken and posted online of an official wearing a watch and smoking a cigarette “clearly out of his pay grade”. The official was jailed.

A woman was accosted by a couple of men and one was a party official. She stabbed the men and killed them, but there was such an outcry online that she wasn’t prosecuted. We are seeing a real development of a public sphere in China. When we focus solely on censorship, then we miss this phenomenon.

Everyone here wants to advance internet freedom in China, and Kaiser is quick to say that he supports it. But when the US government that it is dedicating millions of dollars to support internet censorship circumvention technologies, many people changed their minds about the official party line. Some liberal Chinese users came to accept the view that the internet was being used for imperialism. Planting the American flag on this operation might have backfired.

The development of the Chinese internet will eventually overwhelm censors. These freedoms should be taken from within. They cannot be granted from without.

He applauds private organisations and companies working to help create that change, but to paraphrase Kaiser, government involvement brings baggage.

5 thoughts on “Al Jazeera Unplugged: Kaiser Kuo on China

  1. Thanks for liveblogging this, Kevin. Always good to hear Kaiser’s perspective on all things China. I don’t suppose there’s video being posted somewhere…

  2. Chris, I believe that the video will be posted on YouTube. I’ll speak to the conference organisers and try to get you a link.

  3. Great article, Kevin, thanks! It’s not easy for me to find this kind of information about China.

    I just discovered your blog from your Google Buzz profile. I see that you covered Second Life topics as well – this is very intriguing to me, as I’m an active Second Life user, content creator and commenter.
    I argue that the Second Life virtual world platform has a huge potential, and it’s just good that its coverage on mainstream media went down after 2007 – while in the meantime its economy and usage kept growing.
    Are you using Second Life or going to write about it these days? Should you, please let me know – I’d be delighted to help and give you some insights if needed.

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