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China's Digital Green Dam: The Party Capitulates

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The Chinese central government's decision to delay the "mandatory installation" of the "Green Dam Youth Escort" filtering software on new computers, announced yesterday by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), highlights an evolving relationship between the Communist Party and the Chinese people. Despite being light years from introducing dramatic, multi-party political reform, it is increasingly small-d "democratic" (i.e., responsive) vis-a-vis the demands of a new, economically-empowered middle class.

According to meticulously composed propaganda, the Green Dam was intended to "block violence and pornographic contents on the internet to protect minors. It could also help parents control how much time their children spend online." The Chinese, a switched-on, pragmatic people who, by the way, are vigorous consumers of digital porn, instantly grasped the government's real goal was to control the free flow of information. The government has officially noted "technical issues" and "concerns about data security" as reasons for the delay. But everyone knows the truth. The CCP, in its zeal to control the thoughts and actions of its people, crossed an infra-red line of a people who, in exchange for political subservience, demand a government that advances economic interests and the freedom to live without heavy-handed bureaucratic interference. The Green Dam, a ham-fisted attempt to monitor online dialog, directly threatened both quality of life and access to the outside world. The people, in on- and off-line worlds, revolted. Digital primal screams were deafening. Even editorial page debates were lively. On the street, the Green Dam became a joke.

I have often argued that China, a Confucian society that cherishes order and stability as the prerequisite for individual and national advancement, does not crave bottom-up representative democracy. Furthermore, most Chinese have confidence in the ability of the central government - as opposed to local and provincial organs - to advance the interests of the majority. As the financial crisis sweeps across the globe, citizens are impressed with their leaders' far-sightedness. From aggressive stimulative policy to announced welfare reforms, most Chinese believe their country will emerge stronger than ever on the global stage once the tsunami recedes. In marked contrast to the Japanese, the Chinese people have faith in the wisdom of their rulers.

But that faith is not blind.

As any society passes into a post-industrial era, self-expression becomes necessary and apparent. In regimented China, a society in which rules and restrictions are omnipresent and genuine individualism has not taken root, the internet is a vital channel for information and, critically, emotional release.

The Chinese maintain a less "functional" relationship with all things digital relative to Westerners. The Chinese are not simply "engaged" with the internet. They flock to a virtual universe to free themselves - and forge new relationships - in way that is not possible in the real world. They do it anonymously, no holds barred, according to a study conducted by JWT and IAC. In response to the statement, "Online I feel free to do and say things I wouldn't do or say offline," fewer than a third of young American agree and a large majority (41%) disagree. Among Chinese respondents, almost three-quarters agree (73%), and just 9% disagree. Similarly, there is a clear difference in outlook when it comes to the notion that "it's perfectly possible to have real relationships purely online, with no face-to-face contact." About a fifth of Americans agree (21%), while almost two-thirds of Chinese do (63%).

The Green Dam threatened this deep love. The people said "No!" And the government threw in the towel. (My bet: the Party will find a face-saving way - an "indefinite delay" - that allows the issue to fade away. But its tactics will not be clear for a few months. American "free trade" complaints will have had little to do with the outcome.)

Am I saying that the government's decision to delay the enforcement of Green Dam installation presages dramatic political reform? Certainly not. The vast majority of Chinese believe an empowered central government guarantees individual and national gain. But this is a clear case of an evolving relationship between rulers and ruled. There will be experiments in intra-party checks and balances, particularly at the local level. The judicial branch, particularly in the commercial arena, will have a wider berth to make decisions free of political interference. KPIs will be used to judge the performance of apparatchiks and some criteria will focus on "community satisfaction." Accountability standards will be promulgated and, more than occasionally, enforced.

China will become more "democratic" but not in an electoral sense, at least not within the next couple decades.

Societies do evolve. And China continues on its own journey to become a modern nation, with a government accountable for its behavior. But the contours of the Middle Kingdom's political structure will always assume the shape of its distinct worldview.