Political Reform & the Rise of the Internet in China

By Chris Economou
May 2, 2011

It is 2 P.M., and a group of young, would-be protesters are being led away by Beijing police from the local McDonalds. Inspired by the Jasmine Revolutions taking place across the Middle East, these protesters were less fortunate than their Arab counterparts. Their efforts, planned largely through the Internet, were swiftly curtailed when they were discovered by the Beijing authorities. On Sunday, February 20, the protests planned to unfold across China never occurred—the “revolution” was over before it began. To China’s leaders, however, the problem remains, because as long as the Internet flourishes in their country the threat of political reform will persist.

A vocal proponent of Internet freedom, President Barack Obama has consistently stressed its importance in China. In a 2010 trip to China, Obama stated that access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity and entrepreneurship. China’s leaders are not wholly averse to political reform and, in some instances, welcome it as a means to aid economic and political stability. In a 2010 speech, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned that China’s economy and national modernization process would be jeopardized if the country failed to undertake systemic political reform.

The Internet, however, presents a problem for China’s leaders as it encourages reform faster than the government prefers or has the time to adjust to. When the Internet was first introduced to China in 1994, it had 10,000 users. Today, that number has jumped to 210 million users and counting.

In confronting the Internet, China’s government has used both repression and compliance. One of the largest and most controversial methods of Internet repression used by the Chinese authorities is a government-sponsored program, aptly named the “Great Firewall of China.” The “Great Firewall” consists of an estimated 50,000 people, employed just to monitor and censor any websites deemed controversial. China’s government also relies on physical repression. At the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) in March, it was revealed that the new budget would include 624 billion yuan ($95 billion) for items related to law and order, a 13.8% increase from 2010. In the wake of the February 20 crackdown, this suggests that China’s leaders comprehend the impact the Internet is having on their society and are adjusting their security services accordingly.

Yet Beijing is also aware that repression alone will not solve the problem and has yielded small political concessions to stem public unrest. In 2003, for example, Chinese authorities responded to rising Internet chatter regarding an increase in rural poverty and issued a new administrative regulation entitled “Relief Methods for Vagrants and Beggars.” This repealed regulations that restricted migration to China’s cities as well as controversial police powers. Additionally, China’s current leaders, Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao,, have held a number of online dialogue sessions throughout the country as a means to speak to the people directly.

How China’s next leaders handle the Internet’s impact remains to be seen. The political ideology of both Xi Jinping, China’s next assumed president, and Li Keqiang, China’s next assumed prime minister, are largely opaque. Given the secretive nature of Chinese politics, analysts can only assume and search for clues in each leader’s past to predict how they will address the Internet and political reform. Regardless of the individual views they hold, China’s next leaders will still be stifled by a political system that neither welcomes nor is structured to handle significant change. China’s highest decision-making body, the nine-member Standing Politburo, and the 370-strong Central Committee are dominated by hard-line communists who are more concerned with maintaining stability than political reform.

Many of China’s leaders understand the value and necessity of reforms, but this initiative must come gradually and from the top, not the bottom, so as to maintain their country’s economic and political stability. And for good reason—according to a 2010 spring survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, 87 percent of Chinese said they were satisfied with the way things were going in their country. The same project also found that 74 percent believed their lives would be better in five years. China’s leaders want to maintain this optimistic sentiment among their people. Therefore, Americans should neither expect nor demand significant political or Internet reforms in China in the near future. Instead, the value of the Internet and the role it can play in Chinese society should continue to be gently advocated with the hope that one day China’s leaders will respond to the needs of their people and bring true reform to the government.

Chris Economou is a second year graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He is currently studying for his Masters in International Affairs with a concentration in U.S. Foreign Policy.

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