Hualing Fu

[IBWSC13 Feature Stories] Why China Tolerates Internet Freedom

August 16, 2013 / by / 0 Comment

Could you live without Facebook, Twitter, and other Internet freedoms?  And is unfettered access to the Internet an indicator of a free society?

According to Hong Kong University Law Professor Fu Hualing, who spoke to the IB Conference on August 15, most Chinese who have never lived in the West don’t long for these icons of western social media, nor do they spend time on the Internet trying to advance human rights.

Not missing what they never had, they don’t feel deprived.

In fact, recent surveys show that, despite living in one of the last one-party states in the world, 80 percent of Chinese consider themselves happy — one of the highest ratings in the world.  According to Dr. Fu, “This was due to the average Chinese person’s sense that they have the freedoms they need to be satisfied in their daily lives.”

The question of whether China is a free society was therefore academic, he said.

Scholars point to China’s “authoritarian resilience” as a key factor in the survival of the CCP, or Chinese Communist Party.  While other similar regimes have ended up on the ash heap of history, this resilience has enabled the CCP to adapt to changing times.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Party’s tolerance of the Internet.  Dr. Fu cited five factors shaping the CCP’s attitude toward Internet freedoms, while the government maintained its authoritarian rule.

Most important was economics.  The ability to sustain economic growth was closely linked to the CCP’s legitimacy, and was therefore a key political driver, said Dr. Fu.   Given that the Internet and information technology were now essential elements of the Chinese economy, the CCP had no choice but to tolerate the Internet’s continued development.

Another factor was governance.  Dr. Fu said that, despite China’s size, it was still a unitary state, unlike the federal systems in many large countries, such as the US.  This meant that Beijing had less oversight over its local governments.  In the Internet’s role as an alternative to a free press and independent judiciary in China, it functioned as a check on local government actions by providing a platform for citizens to vent and expose corruption.

A third driver was technology.  In China, most information technology was outside traditional government control mechanisms and privately owned.  The Internet’s interactive nature and its large number of users, roughly 400 million in China, combine to make it difficult for the government to control, Dr. Fu explained.

Globalization — in the form of foreign influences, WTO trade commitments, and cultural change — was another force tempering Beijing’s ability to control the Internet.  Even visiting McDonald’s or Starbucks opened a small crack for foreign influences to enter China, as people became comfortable with the idea of cultural change.  Dr. Fu said the CCP was concerned about these creeping cultural changes but could do little, as they were often subtle and occurring over time.

One of the more enduring reasons the CCP may not be able to manage the Internet was what Dr. Fu called “freedom’s intrinsic value.”

“With freedom of expression being the touchstone of all individual rights, once you have tasted freedom, it’s hard for the government to take it away,” he said.  While Facebook was just a mechanism, it also represented the freedom to communicate.

Despite these limitations on the CCP’s ability to control the Internet, it did have a strategy to adapt to the realities of the information age.  According to Dr. Fu, these included a centralized hands-on approach to the media, a priority focus on cracking down on political speech, commercialization (not privatization) of state-owned media, and greater tolerance of free speech by emphasizing laws that penalized action and incitement over simple speech or opinions.

Overall, Dr. Fu saw a mixed picture in China’s Internet.  He said the CCP was trying hard to control information, but had to allow certain freedoms.  This was partly driven by its own need for input from its citizens, especially from the local level.  He thought that further evolution of the Internet would eventually lead to a more democratic Chinese state, but with its own characteristics.

However, the professor predicted that such changes would continue to be incremental and based on rule of law, a “political soft landing.”

“Building up China’s civil society with a large middle class is the best hope for democratic reform.”

Martin Murphy, from JMSC, HKU