China and the Internet: How the Chinese Government Controls the Flow of Information Online and How Western Powers (Corporate and Political) Can Respond

Thanks to the Asia Society for sponsoring and sharing this fascinating conversation about the internet in China held at the Asia Society in New York on February 19th, 2014.

The moderator is the Asia Society's Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, Orville Schell.

This particular discussion was prompted by former State Department staffer (under President Clinton, advising on Internet freedom and open government) and author Emily Parker's new book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground.  

Also on the panel (providing the best short history I've ever heard of Google's failed experience in China starting around the 37:00 mark) was Andrew McLaughlin, former Director of Global Public Policy at Google and now CEO of Digg

Filmmakers! Check out the remarkable insights (starting around 54:30) into how Hollywood's influence on U.S.-China trade policy goals (i.e.,  pushing for copyright enforcement in China - and therefore on the tools that identify users and the content they are sharing) may paradoxically be having a deleterious effect on free speech in China.

UPDATE Feb. 28th, 2014:  On Feb. 18th, 2014, Bill Bishop posted a wonderful up-to-date introduction to the Chinese internet: 

"The Chinese internet is dominated by three firms—Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent—often referred to as the 'BATs.' Historically Baidu has owned search, Alibaba has dominated ecommerce and online payments, and Tencent has been the leader in online communications and gaming.

Bill Bishop's article, while just a short primer, does a good job of explaining the differences between the top social media platforms on the Chinese internet - Sina’s Weibo and Tencent’s WeChat - and the leading search engine - Baidu. Information about these dominant services will be of particular interest to filmmakers. 

Here's a sample of the insights offered by Bill Bishop: "In its attempt to control the message, Beijing has tried to nurture state-owned internet firms but almost all have failed. In the first place, many were late entrants into their respective fields. Separate search engines operated by Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily Online were recently merged in a last ditch attempt to turn them into a success, but neither had much chance of catching frontrunner Baidu. Private firms have also proved far nimbler and more responsive to user needs than stodgier state-owned competitors. And they typically offer much better compensation, so snap up the best employees. Nevertheless, the central government appears relatively unconcerned, as it believes it can effectively regulate and control the large internet firms without owning them."

So what's the future of state involvement with the Chinese internet? 

As the Chinese Communist Party explained in a “Decision on Deepening Reform” document published at the close of the the November 2013 Plenum: "China will reinforce its overall administration over cyberspace in accordance with the law and accelerate formation of a sound internet management system to ensure national internet and information security."

OK. What does that mean?

As Bill Bishop observes: "The government derives tremendous value from monitoring the discussions on social media and understands that its citizens need an outlet. It does not want to kill social media, but it does want it to be better controlled and have more 'positive energy.'"

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