Chinese Communist Party should embrace Internet as tool to reform itself

Nicholas Kristof tells the (in)famous story of Lao Tzu attempting to train women to fight. After the women repeatedly break out in giggles, Lao Tzu beheads their two leaders. The remaining women immediately began taking the training extremely seriously.

Kristof writes:

That’s the kind of historical tale that members of China’s Politburo absorbed while growing up — and reflect today. In battles over Google and the currency exchange rate, they model the hardheaded Sun Tzu, accepting that making omelets will require breaking eggs. So look out.

…[T]he leaders appear to worry about a fragile society and the risk that a rise in unemployment could lead to vast social upheaval.

That’s one of the reasons China is adamantly refusing to let the renminbi rise further. There’s no question that China’s undervalued currency irresponsibly creates global imbalances — but if you’re in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound, your concern is just staying in power.

While the Chinese leadership has legitimate fears, I think they’re foolish to clamp down so repressively on information. The best response to people’s hunger for knowledge isn’t censorship but openness.

Internet-fueled public pressure would greatly reduce two of China’s most serious problems: rampant corruption and pollution. A more open Internet would also help attract foreign-trained Chinese back to China and give citizens a greater sense of ownership in (or, at least, connection to) their government (esp. if citizens see public pressure gradually improving their government). And the Chinese people are already inclined — partly through decades of indoctrination — to take the Chinese government’s position on sensitive issues, like Taiwan and Tibet.

If the Chinese government could set aside its bunker mentality and its false belief that repression is the best response to almost any political or social issue, it would realize it’s overestimating the downsides of an open Internet and underestimating the many long-term benefits… not only for Chinese society as a whole but also for the Chinese Communist Party itself. By embracing the Internet as a tool to reform itself, the CCP’s standing, stature and legitimacy in citizens' eyes would rise dramatically as it transformed China into a better nation and itself into a better government.

Posted by James on Thursday, April 01, 2010