China’s information society dilemma and the Ghosts of Tiananmen

Category: Media & Technology | NGOs & Government
Published on Jan 14, 2010

Google’s clash with China raises some more fundamental questions. It’s now been 20 years since the June 4th incident in Tiananmen and political change has been, as Mao predicted, “like crossing a river, feeling for the pebbles one at a time.” The question, over the long term, is whether the ghosts of Tiananmen will come back to haunt China in ways its leadership could not have predicted.

Just as India aspires to be more than the world’s back office, China aspires to be more than the world’s workshop. Can China move to a knowledge based economy and achieve the same creative alchemy that we’ve seen emerge from Silicon Valley, without the equivalent freedom of thought and openness that characterizes life in high-tech capital of California? Could it have been even better off today had its embraced freedom and democracy in the wake of Tiananmen?

It’s impossible to say with certainly. But you can’t discount the continued impact of economic growth on public expectations. The irony is that the rapid economic growth that many authoritarian countries desire triggers the very internal forces that will see despots and dictatorships crumble under the weight of their citizen’s aspirations. The experience of most countries is that the growth of economic capacities internally spurs the rise of citizen demands and citizen responsibilities.

In China, rapid economic growth is giving rise to a significant middle class with purchasing power, and with time to articulate social concerns and demands. The expectations rise quickly as economic gains translate into demands for a better overall quality of life. This kind of citizen is becoming more vocal. For China’s leaders, economic growth engenders a paradox—namely, that the very government that makes improvements becomes the object of further criticism. But is domestic unrest enough when you’re up against a highly sophisticated and well-resourced apparatus of state control?

Arguably, China’s phenomenal growth has only emboldened its communist leaders. Over time they have grown increasingly steadfast in their determination that China will never embrace Western freedoms or its tradition of competitive elections. And while it was once common for foreign leaders to chastise China’ for its human rights record, such criticisms are barely audible today. High rates of economic growth and rapid integration into the global trading system have effectively pushed issues of democratic governance to the back burner.

Personally, I’m hoping that the recent incident with Google will rekindle the world’s concern about the slippery slope leads to greater tyranny and less freedom around the world.

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