Last week, in Part I of this series, I touched upon issues currently arising in the Chinese and U.S. internet milieus. In China, a heavily-censored internet infrastructure engenders distrust, especially in times of chaos in the real world. In the U.S., a laissez-faire approach to internet policing allows for the unbridled spread of disinformation in news and social media platforms. To learn more about the principles that drive censorship and policing on China’s internet, and how other countries, such as the U.S., might combat the threat of disinformation, I sat down for a conversation with Andy Mok. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Andy Mok is a non-resident Fellow at the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), where he concentrates on technology and its impact on great power relations and the rise and fall of empires. He is also a commentator at China Global Television Network (CGTN, formerly CCTV News), where he provides on-air insights about geopolitics, startups, and technological trends in China. He helped research and publish The United States and a Rising China: Strategic and Military Implications, a highly influential RAND Corporation monograph, as part of a team led by Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.
What has historically been China’s approach towards internet censorship and policing?
Andy Mok (AM): The starting point is to recognize that the foundational principle for governance in China is maintaining social stability, and essentially, there are three ways to do this: providing physical safety, providing economic security and a path to economic prosperity, and finally, providing for the moral and patriotic education of its people.
If we step back and look at the context of modern Chinese history from the perspective of thousands of years, we can see that the greatest risk to the state is disorder. China has a certain wisdom in saying that there must be a strong state, and that includes managing and controlling information—that is probably the most important part of maintaining social stability and a strong state—and the internet accelerates the ability of information and disinformation to spread more quickly. That reinforces the importance of having effective measures to manage this.
On the other hand, I think that the U.S. was, in a sense, naive in not recognizing the danger that an unmanaged and uncensored internet could result in, as we're seeing now with the allegations of political interference in elections, as well as in other parts of the world, where rumors spreading on the internet have resulted in attacks and massacres.
So I think other countries are playing “catch up,” whereas China recognized very early on that the internet was not only a very valuable tool but also a potentially dangerous one, and a well-thought out, comprehensive, and systematic system of censorship is very important.
Do you foresee any time in the near or far future China opening up its firewall, or making it easier for those trying to bypass its firewall?
AM: I don't see it changing much, and I think there are three reasons for this. One is the evaluation — any effective security system is responsive to perceived threat levels. When we have sensitive recurring days or events, either external or internal, that raise the perceived threat level, then the response is also increased.
On top of that, because the government in China is an enormous bureaucracy, signals sometimes get amplified. Bureaucracies, by their nature, are risk-averse, meaning that the incentives or rewards are skewed more towards avoiding bad things than achieving good things. This is what makes a bureaucracy stable and durable. When a message comes down, be it from President Xi or whomever—"Ok, everybody has to be careful, everybody has to be vigilant"—as this message trickles through the system, everybody says "hmm, here's an edge case, it’s better to be safe than sorry." We always want to have a certain degree of overreaction to perceived threats, and I think that's a structural feature of any bureaucracy.
The third reason why this happens is that there's a signaling effect of deterrence. In times of civil unrest, say, in the U.S.—why do you bring out the national guard? Part of it is that they have the potential for violence much greater than, presumably, any of the rioters would be able to muster, so they could win any fight. But there also is the deterrence of "We're watching, so you better behave." I don't think that things will change substantially, due to these three reasons, as long as there's varying risk assessments or threat levels.
Do you think the U.S. government ought to change the extent to which they police the internet? If so, how?
AM: I think that's a very difficult question. First, at the ideological level, there's a problem, an inherent contradiction. If you're going to say that free speech is a value that trumps all values—and that's a legitimate choice that any society can make—then you're going to have to live with the consequences of that. If you're a free-speech absolutist, this implies that citizens are qualified to distinguish truth from lies. I think implicitly this is something that has not been adequately explored, and I think this is one of the weaknesses in the U.S. system—there are no theoreticians. In China, the Communist Party has theoreticians that research and come up with theories and interpretations of Marxism or Socialism with Chinese characteristics that form the ideological bedrock.
But in the U.S., there are these abstract, vague and ambiguous statements, like, "free speech is very important." But what do you do then when someone is lying in political speech? What are the expectations of an informed citizenry? If we go back to this idealized version of Athenian democracy—and put aside that not everyone could vote, only certain males—the assumption prevailed that these were all educated, discriminating men who could discern truth from falsehood or sophistry from wisdom, and this is why they were given the power to vote. Is this true in the U.S.? Is every citizen really qualified and has the discernment? Probably, the answer is no.
If that's the case, should you still have free speech? I don't know. But these are the theoretical questions, and of course there are academics that study this, but is there some political institution that ensures the ideology is supporting the goals of the government in the U.S.? I don't believe there is, and I think that’s a fundamental problem. At a more tactical level, you can see Facebook and Twitter are now employing censors. Obviously the topics they censor are different, but the function and methodology is the same: remove content that is harmful. And I think this is what China recognized very early on. Operationally, I think there's a lot that can be learned from how China does things, but I think the main issue is at the theoretical and ideological level.
And this brings up an interesting question: Can the U.S., in a sense, reinvent itself, or upgrade its political operating system? If you think about all of these key features of the U.S. political system—separation of power, free press, etcetera—are those still serving the needs of the people? When we look at everything, even infrastructure investment in roads, bridges and airports, becoming stymied by political gridlock in a vertical way—with the ability of very narrow interest groups to block or completely derail infrastructure projects at the federal, state, municipal level, whether for conservation, NIMBYism, or other reasons—this type of vertical separation of power is detrimental. We can also see gridlock at the federal level, where projects that need to be done are held up by the separation of powers, the two party system and the three branches of government. These are not operational problems. These are deeper than that. These are ideological. Can a country upgrade or replace these concepts? I think if you're only trying to tinker with things at the operational level without addressing the fundamental principles you're not going to solve the problem. But then if you change the principles, the structures have to change, and when the structures change the policies change, and this is an upheaval.