The Chinese government has taken some umbrage at Secretary Clinton’s speech on internet freedom last week. The Secretary, to be sure, called China out for censoring the internet, but she couched that criticism in pretty cozy language:
The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous. There are so many people in China now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century. Now, the United States and China have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship.
Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, was less friendly in his response:
The US attacks China’s internet policy, indicating that China has been restricting internet freedom. We resolutely oppose such remarks and practices that contravene facts and undermine China-US relations.
China’s internet is open. China is a country with the most vibrant internet development. By the end of last year, China had 384 million internet users, 3.68 million websites and 180 million blogs. China’s Constitution guarantees people’s freedom of speech. It is China’s consistent policy to promote the development of internet. China has its own national conditions and cultural traditions. It supervises internet according to law, which is in parallel with the international paractice…
We urge the US to respect facts and stop attacking China under the excuse of the so-called freedom of internet.
Once we’re past the PRC’s spurious claims about how free their internet is, we can see this in the context of a much bigger picture. Much like our ongoing spats over Tibet, Taiwan and human rights, the Chinese see internet policy as a purely domestic matter, and take criticism of their policy as an affront to their sovereignty. Given our persistent failure to affect China’s behavior on any other sovereignty issues, we’re likely to continue receving nothing but hostility when we bring up internet freedom.
But China’s trucluence shouldn’t be taken as a reason to shut up about internet freedom and censorship. As the Secretary made clear in her speech, freedom of information is at the heart of both our economic prosperity and our national security. Deeper than that, freedom of information is– in itself– a core value of American society.
The progress of freedom around the world has been swamped because developing countries see China as a living example that economic success can be achieved without relaxing the grip of authoritarian rule. For the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, freedom is in retreat around the world. Now more than ever, America must stand as a beacon of liberalism and an exemplar of the power of openness.
We may not get the needle to move on censorship in China, but we must be vocal in support of information freedom– an unambiguous good– and in our criticism of those who stifle liberty anywhere on the globe.