Beijing is ready to say good-bye to Google. Wang Chen, China’s State Council Information Office minister, has responded to Google’s principled threat to pull out of China:
Our country is at a crucial stage of reform and development, and this is a period of marked social conflicts … Properly guiding Internet opinion is a major measure for protecting Internet information security. Internet media must always make nurturing positive, progressive mainstream opinion an important duty. Currently, the Internet gives space for spreading rumours and issuing false information and other actions that diminish confidence, and this is causing serious damage to society and the public interest.
Let’s put this retrograde autocratic boilerplate up against this week’s column by China fetishist Thomas Friedman. The multi-Pulitzer Man sounded, characteristically, indistinguishable from a China lobbyist:
All the long-term investments that China has made over the last two decades are just blossoming and could really propel the Chinese economy into the 21st-century knowledge age, starting with its massive investment in infrastructure. Ten years ago, China had a lot bridges and roads to nowhere. Well, many of them are now connected. It is also on a crash program of building subways in major cities and high-speed trains to interconnect them. China also now has 400 million Internet users, and 200 million of them have broadband. Check into a motel in any major city and you’ll have broadband access. America has about 80 million broadband users.
Poor, declining America. The writing is on the wall, isn’t it? A once-great nation is now muddling along with its quaint democratic government, passé freedoms, sub-bullet-speed trains and — the kiss of death for any great civilization — bad motel Internet.
That’s an interesting metric by which to assess superpower status. Friedman might want to put a little more weight on the fact that those 80 million Americans can perform what would constitute a Chinese Miracle: entering “Tiananmen massacre” into a search engine and getting a result. But no. Apparently “the 21st-century knowledge age” is best suited to states that systematically ban knowledge. The important thing is Jetsons-like rail travel. Here’s Friedman’s sci-fi-Wi-Fi obsession on particularly nasty display in a column from last week:
Being in China right now I am more convinced than ever that when historians look back at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will say that the most important thing to happen was not the Great Recession, but China’s Green Leap Forward. The Beijing leadership clearly understands that the E.T. — Energy Technology — revolution is both a necessity and an opportunity, and they do not intend to miss it.
We, by contrast, intend to fix Afghanistan. Have a nice day.
There’s the backward U.S. for you, focusing on terrorism and freedom when the future belongs to trains and laptops.
But what does Friedman do now? Upon his return to the impossibly slow U.S., how does he explain Google’s decision that human rights trump a share of the Chinese market? How does he discuss this without citing an old-fashioned American emphasis on liberty and justice? Whose side will Friedman and other China obsessives take? If other Internet and tech giants (grudgingly) follow, where does that leave his beloved regime?
The truth is that Wang Chen’s statement tells you everything you need to know about China’s supposedly inevitable rise. Beijing doesn’t enjoy enough legitimacy to allow its citizens to hear dissenting opinions. Without the free flow of ideas, China’s citizens will, in turn, remain insufficient to the task of true innovation. Instead, government-backed quasi-corporations will continue to tinker with gadgets from the disco era — bullet trains and solar power. The world’s Tom Friedmans will continue to swoon. Important technological innovation will come, inevitably, in a form few if any have predicted — let alone ranted about for years in the New York Times. And when it comes, it will come from a part of the world where disagreement and tension give birth to genius, not information blockades.
Even as the Obama administration abandons the long-standing American policy of supporting human rights and democracy abroad, other parties take up the torch to heartening effect. That, after all, is what it means to be a superpower: to embrace and offer compelling ideas that resonate in unexpected corners and live in unforeseen contingents. Ideas that, to some extent, do the work of advancing your interests for you. We saw this unfold with Iran’s pro-American democrats, and now we see it in the American corporate sector. Such displays of integrity can’t but shame cynics on their speed trains to magical futures.