Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Does Beijing love or hate the Net?

By Philip J. Cunningham (China Daily) Updated: 2012-11-16 08:04

Contrary to the notion that China is an enemy of the Internet, and vice versa, there is increasing evidence that Chinese netizens, the largest online community in the world, and the government alike, are embracing the Internet in a lasting and constructive way.

The question of sovereignty and cyberspace is not an either or proposition, but a yin-yang dialectic; China is changing the Internet and the Internet is changing China.

The result won't look exactly like the Internet in the United States or Japan - why should it? - but it will by necessity sustain a very high degree of free information flow, which means tolerance for diverse views, while at the same time taking at least limited regulatory measures against hate speech, jingoism, libel, virtual lynching and so on.

The challenge is to get the balance just right, like harnessing a horse in a way that respects the integrity of the horse and does not impede its power, grace of movement or speed but allows for a modicum of guidance.

In terms of governance, the Internet in China has already introduced a number of positive developments. While the "voice of the people" as heard on the Net is not strictly democratic or statistically representative, it is a collective voice that bears paying attention to. At the same time, segments of the population without Internet access, or those disinclined to use it, need to be taken into account as well.

Another boon of a freewheeling Net is giving citizens a virtual town square or place of petitioning where grievances and miscarriages of justice can get the attention they deserve. Positive lessons can be drawn from the recent protests over land rights and incompetent governance that have gained enough traction on the Internet to bring about judicious intervention from responsible authorities.

Perhaps the most immediately useful aspect of a vigorous Internet in China is the uncanny speed and wealth of detail it brings to exposing corruption and official misdeeds across the vast and less than easily accessible reaches of the world's most populous country. With information coming in from all points and all points of view, on a shared platform viewable by all, potential calamities can be addressed, if not nipped in the bud, and looming problems can get a fix before tumbling out of control.

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