China: "[Americans] use the Internet to sow chaos"

Good article on the Chinese government’s Internet fears.

China has reason for concern because it relies heavily on (stolen) Microsoft software. But, far more troubling, few Chinese computers regularly apply patches that fix known security holes:

[China’s] cyberdefenses are almost certainly more porous than those of the United States, American experts say. To cite one glaring example, even Chinese government computers are frequently equipped with pirated software from Microsoft, they say. That means many users miss out on security upgrades, available to paying users, that fix security breaches exploited by hackers…

The risks of dependence on foreign-made software became clear in 2008 after Microsoft deployed a new antipiracy program aimed at detecting and discouraging unauthorized users of its Windows operating system. In China, where an estimated four-fifths of computer software is pirated, the program caused millions of computer screens to go dark every hour and led to a public outcry.

The bigger point of the article is that China believes America is intentionally using the Internet as a weapon to destroy the Chinese Communist Party:

China’s attempts to tighten its grip on Internet use are driven in part by the conviction that the West — and particularly the United States — is wielding communications innovations from malware to Twitter to weaken it militarily and to stir dissent internally.

“The United States has already done it, many times,” said Song Xiaojun, one of the authors of “Unhappy China,” a 2009 book advocating a muscular Chinese foreign policy, which the party’s propaganda department is said to promote. He cited the so-called color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia as examples. “It is not really regime change, directly,” he said. “It is more like they use the Internet to sow chaos.”

…[T]he government is beefing up its security apparatus. Officials have justified stronger measures by citing various internal threats that they say escalated online. Among them: the March 2008 riots in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa; reported attempts to disrupt the August 2008 Olympic Games and the amassing of more than 10,000 signatures supporting a petition for human rights and democratic freedoms, an example of how democracy advocates could organize online…

China’s leaders also reviewed how Iranian antigovernment activists used Twitter and other new communication tools to organize large street demonstrations against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the summer. He said Chinese leaders saw the Iranian protests as an example of how the United States could use the new forms of online communication in a fashion that could one day be turned against China.

“How did the unrest after the Iranian elections come about?” People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, asked in a Jan. 24 editorial. “It was because online warfare launched by America, via YouTube video and Twitter micro-blogging, spread rumors, created splits, stirred up and sowed discord.”

Parts of the U.S. military and intelligence community probably are trying to use the Internet to manipulate public opinion in China and other countries. But U.S. meddling is likely 1% of the story, not 100%, as the Chinese government claims. And Youtube, Twitter and Facebook were created for profit, not to undermine foreign nations.

The Internet lets people share information and communicate. China would have little to fear from the free flow of information if China’s ethnic minorities felt fairly treated, if its leaders acted in the people’s interest rather than doing the bidding of the companies bribing them (a problem we obviously have here in America too), if China’s media were free to expose corruption, and if China were a democracy — rather than an unelected, authoritarian regime with a history it feels it must actively repress, lest its citizens rise up against their leaders. U.S. agents could say whatever they wanted online, but few in China would react. Instead, China jails vocal political opponents, heavily censors debate and information, allows and often covers up widespread political corruption, publishes state propaganda that few believe, and represses the local cultures, languages and political autonomy of Xinjiang and Tibet in ways non-Han natives deeply resent. Internet or no Internet, these are legitimate frustrations of the people of China.

Blaming American meddling in China is a convenient scapegoat. But the real problem is the Chinese government’s repressive policies against its own citizens. The longer and harder China represses its people, the fiercer the eventual reaction will be. Shutting off the Internet may prevent people from acting on their anger, but it in no way eliminates the underlying anger.

The wise course to a future in which the Chinese people embrace the Communist Party, rather than tolerate it because they lack any alternative, involves gradually allowing greater criticism of party officials, greater access to information, and greater self-determination (starting with local village elections) while gradually tightening up anti-corruption efforts.

A few years ago, China appeared to be heading toward this brighter future. But the Communist Party recently slammed on the brakes and put the car in reverse. Greater repression may give the Communist Party what it wants in the short term, but it’s a bad long-term strategy.

Posted by James on Friday, February 12, 2010