Book Excerpt: China Airborne

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“Did the Brits ban steam?”

One of China’s main nationalist papers, Global Times, has argued that China needed special consideration and understanding in circumstances like these. It was still too early to unleash the full power of free communications on the society. “The Internet has broken China’s previous social calm, and forced society to proceed hurriedly in respect of issues like democracy,” the official English version of the editorial said. A few weeks later, the same paper argued that since the Pentagon was shifting the international battlefield onto the Internet, the Chinese government had no sane alternative but to exercise its own controls to defend China’s national security. The People’s Daily chimed in around the same time, “Chinese people fear turbulence and worry about being led into troubles and so they ardently hope for stability, harmony and peace.”

This was putting a proudly nationalistic gloss on the idea that there was a time and place for each stage of development, and that the proper time had not yet come for Chinese people to choose and filter information on their own. Opinion polls in China, for what they are worth, suggest that many people were indeed comforted by the government’s role in shielding them from dangerous views. But I know there are people who feel infantilized and diminished by this reminder that they’re not quite part of the modern world. I know because I’ve met many of them. Students at universities seemed dutiful rather than sincere in explaining that they didn’t really miss much by using the Baidu search engine instead of Google. “They are kind of embarrassed,” one tech expert said at a program in Bejing in 2011. “It suggests a kind of second-rateism for the country, even now.”

In an interview with a Chinese Web site in 2011, Richard Parris, an Australian Internet-technologist living in Beijing, pointed out that the number of Chinese people directly affected by Internet censorship was relatively small. But he argued that the restrictions had a disproportionately large effect on the country and its potential. The small group directly inconvenienced constituted a large share of those Chinese with ambitions to operate at the highest level of scholarship, scientific research, technical innovation, and other elements of truly first-rate international activity. Among others, they would likely include those with the greatest ambitions to learn from and compete with the world’s best in aerospace or other advanced high-tech fields. “This is a younger, more Internet-literate group, more likely to have a friend overseas with a Facebook account,” Parris said. “Or a new colleague who can’t believe that they can’t get on their Facebook account in China.”

Hip and worldly young Chinese might be embarrassed in front of their foreign friends by these remnants of backwardness, Parris said. But the real damage to the country was that in any line of work that depended on international communication, “there was a sense that this could make China second-rate. If you’re an Internet professional, this is not the place you’ll want to work if you want to be competing with the best. This will still be a place where people can make money. But they will go to Silicon Valley — or India” (or other countries he could have mentioned) “to be part of real innovation” in modern fields like infotech, biotech, and aerospace.

“I feel so sorry for China’s scientists, engineers, and artists in all of this,” a foreign friend of mine who has worked for years as a musician in Beijing told me during the Jasmine crackdowns. “Just at the moment that should be their ‘coming out,’ which happens by sheer luck to coincide with the blossoming of the Internet as the very fabric and medium of the scientific and artistic worlds at large, they have these additional handcuffs slapped on them by their own government. They have plenty enough access to the Internet to know how important it is, but just enough obstacles to prevent them from joining and taking advantage of it all.”

Or, as another correspondent suggested in an e-mail exchange, “What country ever rode to preeminence by fighting the reigning technology of the time? Did the Brits ban steam?”

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