By Yang Jianli
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

China's growing assertiveness and its huge effort to control cyberspace should leave little doubt that the democratization of China will be the single most important contribution to U.S. security and world stability in the 21st century. Providing for a free and open Internet is the surest, quickest and most cost-effective strategy for enabling a peaceful transition to democracy in China and other dictatorships around the world.

Internet censorship is more than a human rights issue. China's Great Firewall creates an imbalance of information that, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "increases both the likelihood of conflict and the probability that small disagreements could escalate." Already, Internet censorship has created two Chinas and escalated world tensions.

Behind the Great Firewall exists an uneasy China where, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 100,000 large-scale protests against the government occur annually. It is a China of widespread inequities whose national wealth is denied to 99.6 percent of households. This China has no universal safety nets such as Social Security. Bereft of an independent judiciary, citizens of this China have no political protection or means for redressing grievances. Ill-conceived social policies and projects run without the checks and balances of an independent media.

This China was aptly captured in a December 2008 manifesto of leading intellectuals, who wrote that "the Chinese government's approach to 'modernization' has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse. So we ask: Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with 'modernization' under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?" Chinese censors promptly took down Charter '08 after it was published; its lead author, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on trumped-up charged.

The second, more familiar, country is China Inc. This China projects an image of a harmonious and stable society. It uses its vast wealth and power to neutralize the intellectual elite and buy off business and political interests around the world through a pervasive culture of bribes and intimidation. China Inc. impresses observers with its wealth and astonishing growth rate. Observers begin to believe that a one-party dictatorship is a good model for economic growth and the progress of society.

The Great Internet Firewall allows Beijing to keep the China behind the firewall largely out of sight. Chinese rulers project China Inc. to its own people and especially to the outside world; opinions are formed and Western businesses and governments base decisions on this lopsided information.

Tearing down the Great Firewall is necessary for harmonizing Chinese society and ensuring world stability. The vehicle for a reuniting these two Chinas is already designed. Charter 08 defines the terms and sets the language for building a bond between rulers and the people. It defines a covenant of governance through the rule of law and a respect for cultural diversity. If we can see Charter 08 as the vehicle to carry the citizens of China to a more harmonious society, then the Internet is the highway along which they will travel. Wherever the Internet reaches, it enhances commercial productivity, increases government transparency and stimulates social vitality, to the benefit of all mankind. Only the Beijing regime views the Internet as a scourge, and exhausts its resources to infiltrate, intercept and close off information.

With an open Internet, Chinese citizens could enjoy a political life denied them in the real world: free expression; free public debate; the ability to share ideas and to organize around shared values; to build in virtual space the values and framework for a more democratic society. Likewise, an open Internet is a pathway for voices like Liu Xiaobo to reach out to the West and to counterbalance the Chinese government's information monopoly.

Google's recent decision to eliminate censorship of its search engine was brave first step in the process of tearing down the Great Firewall. The Global Internet Freedom Initiatives of Congress are an important step as well. The recent declaration of Internet Freedom adopted by the Geneva Human Rights and Democracy Summit will soon go before the United Nations. The world community must unite to send a clear, compelling message to Beijing that it cannot enjoy the benefits of world membership while denying those same benefits to its own citizens.

Dr. Yang Jianli is a Harvard University Fellow and the President of the pro-democracy movement, Initiatives for China. A survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and a former political prisoner in China, Dr. Yang is the author of a Federalist Constitution for China and a signer of the Charter 08 Manifesto for China.

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