Let’s Build a Beautiful Wall Around Peaceful Evolution
I participated in the following ChinaFile debate:
How Long Can China’s Internet Thrive if the Rest of the World Gets Shut Out?
Last week, Chinese authorities announced that as of March 10, foreign-invested companies would not be allowed to publish anything on the Chinese Internet unless they have obtained government permission to publish with a Chinese partner. What does this mean for the look and feel of the Chinese Internet? What will it mean for international media businesses (movie studios, newspapers, advertisers) interested in reaching China’s consumers? As more and more Chinese are able to travel to places where the Internet is less restricted, how will they react to the version of the Internet that exists inside the Great Fire Wall? How long can China’s Internet thrive without the participation of the rest of the World?
The full debate is here and my contribution is below
By David Schlesinger
China has feared—and fought—“peaceful evolution” (和平演变) since the 1950s, finding it anathema that foreign ideas and values could eventually challenge and even rot the Communist Party and its system from within.
While the use of the term in official discourse and especially in secret documents reached a crescendo in the years immediately after Tiananmen, something I experienced first hand as Reuters China bureau chief, the concept has never died and can be seen in every provision of the new rules excluding foreign companies from the Chinese Internet.
In practice for foreign news organizations, the restrictions are absolutely nothing new. What they do is send the strong and unmistakable message that what some had thought was a grey area is actually pretty close to black!
Foreign news companies aiming at the Chinese market have always located their servers in Hong Kong or somewhere else offshore and relied on Chinese readers to “find” them; they have then had to simply accept either with a whimper or a ritual protest the inevitable “blocking” of their sites should they do something that offends (which most eventually find themselves doing, either by design, accident, or the inexorable rules of western news judgment).
The new rules simply make the news companies’ protests even more hapless.
The main effect of the new rules on foreign news companies will be in their boardrooms, I predict. Those companies spending large sums producing tailored Chinese-language output for the mainland market will have to question once again whether they will ever turn a profit. CFOs and sales managers will wail at the complete inability to accurately predict audience size or whether the site will be blocked for days, weeks, months, or years from the advertising targets. Editors will feel pressure, subtle or overt, to avoid being blocked by either defining the areas of coverage ever more narrowly or by soft-peddling controversial subjects. Some companies will perform the ultimate act of self-censorship by simply puling the plug on their China ambitions.
But will any of this actually matter to China?
The Chinese who get most exercised by being blocked from foreign news content are the small sliver of the population in the “people like me” cohort—journalists, academics, educated, well off—exactly those who have ways of accessing the information by other means (admittedly clumsy, irritating, and prone to failure and interference).
As we have seen in the United States with the rise of “Trumpism” and the abject failure in audience and financial terms of Al Jazeera America, xenophobia and news nativism doesn’t actually need laws and regulations to triumph. The heartland of most nations is already walled off by ideology and habit from too many ideas from the outside, and China is no exception.
What the new law does, however, is send a strong shot across the bow of foreign news organizations and the intellectual elites both in China and abroad, saying: “We have our wall against peaceful evolution, and we won’t see it breached.”