Does the U.S. want regime change in the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.)? That is the provocative question on the minds of some of the Chinese delegates to this week’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. The New York Times highlights the increasing tensions surrounding the dialogue by citing an unnamed Chinese official claiming the U.S. is “fomenting revolution” in China.
“Good will between the United States and China is scarce. At the meetings this week, the Americans are expected to talk bluntly about human rights, while the Chinese government has already increased its criticism of the West, with some officials telling foreign diplomats that they believe the United States is fomenting revolution.”
The specter of revolution being raised in what are large but relatively sleepy bilateral meetings is a testament to the ever-growing power of the Internet. The Chinese government clearly feels the Internet, and the social networks it enables, are a major contributor to the growing unrest in China. The Internet is not only being used to express distress with the lack of democracy in China but also to circulate news about the rampant corruption that autocratic regimes breed. As CBS News reports:
“[T]he Chinese Internet is much more dynamic than it might appear from the outside. Chinese web surfers, or ‘netizens’, as they call themselves, often play the role of corporate and government watchdogs. Outraged netizens are often on the front lines of exposing corrupt cultures of lavish dinners and corporate kickbacks.”
The largest Chinese net-popularized scandal to date has involved the state-controlled oil giant Sinopec. The Washington Post reports:
“1,176 bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild and expensive Chinese liquor… purchased with $245,000 in company cash, has created a public relations debacle for Sinopec, China’s biggest company in terms of revenue. The scandal is also a headache for the ruling Communist Party…At a time of rising public anger over high gas prices, Chinese Web sites and even some official media have bubbled with fury over Sinopec’s spendthrift ways …”
Corruption scandals have a particularly corrosive effect on the legitimacy of Communist governments, which claim to serve the best interests of all their people. With the vivid images of dictatorships falling to the Arab Spring, who can blame the P.R.C.’s leaders for wanting to return to the good old days of effective state censorship.
What is particularly interesting is that the Chinese government blames not just the Internet but the U.S. government for enabling this breach of authoritarian policy. It is blame that we deserve and should be proud of.
The U.S. unleashed the Internet on the world and pioneered its most powerful commercial and political uses including social networking. The Internet today is our nation’s premier soft-power weapon. It is a threat to every totalitarian state in the world.
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, understands the Internet’s power. In a recent David Ignatius column, Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security advisor, cites the power of “new communications technology” as one of four elements that “shaped the administration’s response” to the Arab Spring.
The Chinese understand the role the Internet plays in raising questions about the legitimacy of their regime. They also know that for the last decade, over two administrations, the U.S. government has protected the Internet and its protocols from international efforts to curtail the free flow of information. It is time, China believes, for the U.S. to stop aiding and abetting such destabilizing technologies.
The issue of Chinese Internet censorship blends together the interests of both the realist and the idealist schools of American foreign policy. From the idealist perspective, for two centuries the United States has stood as a shining example of the power of a people’s self-determination. Our advocacy for a free and open Internet — including in China — is consistent with this sentiment based on the ideals of our country’s founding.
But even from a realist’s point of view, allowing the Chinese people to push for reform is more likely to yield long-term benefits than siding with the current regime’s efforts to stifle dissent. China’s Communist government is not a long-term friend of the United States. The policies of a more democratic China are likely to be better aligned with those of the United States.
Denied the right to freely elect their leaders, the Internet is giving voice to the Chinese people. Ultimately the Chinese people will gain a much greater say in the future of their country. As with the citizens of central Europe, they will remember which side we were on. Be it on moral or practical grounds, the U.S. should do all it can to protect the Internet, its most powerful democratizing weapon, from efforts by authoritarian regimes to curtail its reach.
Neil Patel is the co-founder and publisher of The Daily Caller and previously served as the chief economic and domestic policy advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. Richard Russell is the director of the American Futures Project. He is a leading expert on domestic and international technology policy and has spent a combined two decades as a United States ambassador and senior presidential and congressional adviser on science, technology and telecommunications.