November 8, 2015

SCHULMAN | China’s Internet Dilemma

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p class=”p1″>The other week, I found a Facebook picture that was fascinating. I know what you’re thinking — and no, the photo didn’t involve anyone’s crazy weekend. I’m sure there were some crazy photos of some crazy weekends, but this photo was definitely crazier. It was a picture of Facebook — specifically a graph of all the cities connected by Facebook. Tiny dots with lines drawn between them represented the connections between each city. As you can imagine, using the dots and lines you could make out the shapes of all the major continents. We are really connected.

But that’s old news. The picture I’m referring to is actually five years old. These days, talking about the places connected to Facebook is boring. Talking about the places that aren’t connected is more interesting. There were five as of 2010: The Middle East, Central Africa, Brazil, Russia and China. China is by far the most interesting to talk about. The reasons Brazil, Russia, Central Africa and the Middle East aren’t connected are obvious. Brazil and Russia used competing social media — although Facebook has since taken the edge. The Middle East and central Africa don’t have the infrastructure or stability to connect.

China’s reason for not connecting is more complicated. Facebook is blocked in China. If your high school blocked access to certain websites on school computers, then you have a sense of how the internet works in China. China has a firewall blocking the uncensored web — granted, China’s techniques are slightly more sophisticated and on a significantly larger scale than your high school’s firewall. Call me a dork, but I find China’s firewall fascinating. We talk about how we’re so connected, but nearly one-sixth of the world’s population isn’t — and won’t be for the foreseeable future. We embrace an open web, but China is terrified of it. It begs the question, why. The answer comes down to China’s wallet. The cost to their economy would be huge.

Conventional wisdom says an open economy — promised by an open web — would help China. But, China thinks an open web would only undermine its economy. China’s economy grows at near double digit rates because of its centrally controlled markets. China’s growth is based on cheap exports, but it couldn’t export cheaply if it opened up. Because of its closed economy, China can keep exports cheap by floating its exchange rate against the dollar, keeping China’s domestic currency weak (Google purchasing power parity to find out why). It routinely abuses human rights, infringes on intellectual property and cuts corners to keep costs down.

This seems counter-intuitive from our point of view. An open tech sector has driven economic growth in the United States. However, China’s economy isn’t like ours. It’s a misconception to think China has a market economy in the sense we do. Our economy thrives because American consumers want new products. For the most part, China’s economy grows because foreign countries demand their cheap exports.

China’s population was starving before China flooded international markets with cheap imports. Now, it is one of the world’s richest countries (in terms of total wealth, anyway — not so much per-capita wealth). China doesn’t want to risk these gains. Social media’s history in the Middle East has parallels with China’s fears about the web. Conventional wisdom would say a more open political systems — promised by social media — would help the region. However, social media didn’t deliver on its promises in countries like Egypt (which ousted one dictator only to embrace another) and it plunged countries like Syria and Libya into civil war. These countries couldn’t leverage open communication platforms for open public debate. Similarly, I’m not sure China could take advantage of a more open economy. China certainly doesn’t think it can.

I’m not saying China should stay offline — although truth be told, it doesn’t matter what China does. If your high school blocked websites, you know a firewall didn’t stop some kids from getting on blocked sites. Getting around China’s firewall is easy. I also love the internet and don’t think China should stay offline. I’m optimistic that China could embrace an open economy. However, there are reasons to not love the web and it’s important to talk about them. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it. Stay tuned alternating Mondays this semester!

Eric Schulman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.