Is the Internet actually helping to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Is the Internet actually helping to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power? That's the question that Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN correspondent, now of the University of Hong Kong, asked last week during a talk at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A while back, enthusiasts in the West predicted that the hurly-burly of the Internet would snuff out authoritarian regimes. China was Exhibit A. But that hasn't happened.

For one, MacKinnon said, the Internet bolsters Communist Party rule because it allows people to blow off steam. Online censorship is actually quite spotty, so Chinese netizens have plenty of space to mock the regime. MacKinnon flashed a Photoshopped image of a naked man doing push-ups on the Great Wall and an Alvin and the Chipmunks-style video of masticating alpacas as examples of hard-hitting political humor. (Trust me, in Chinese, they're a bellyful of laughs.)

MacKinnon argued that the Internet has also forced the government to be more responsive to citizen complaints. Last November, for example, a party official was fired after a security videotape that caught him fondling an 11-year-old girl in a restaurant surfaced on the Web. The result: People are still ticked off, but not enough to make a revolution.

And finally, MacKinnon noted, surfing the Web is an efficient way for China's cops to snoop on dissidents and other malcontents. Cyber-tarianism anyone?

--John Pomfret, Outlook editor and author of "Chinese Lessons"

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