The Virtues of Chinese Censorship

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In a recent TCS Daily piece, Reason Contributing Editor James DeLong quickly moves from defending Google's cooperation with the Chinese government's Web censorship (which you might think would be a challenging enough task in a 1,300-word essay) to defending the Chinese government, which he suggests is wise to put "perestroika before glasnost." I am honestly not sure if he's kidding. Assuming he isn't, I have a few questions:

1. Isn't the need to maintain order the excuse of every tyrant?

2. Can Russia's return to authoritarianism (including state control of the news media), which DeLong cites as a cautionary tale about the dangers of moving too quickly toward an open society, reasonably be attributed to excessive freedom of speech?

3. Doesn't the Chinese government's ham-handed censorship foster popular discontent by giving credence to wild rumors and blocking the safety valve of open dissent?

4. Aren't the dangers of democracy that DeLong cites the result of insufficient respect for individual rights? How does punishing people for the things they say foster respect for liberty?

5. How can China have economic freedom if it doesn't respect property rights, including the right to set up a Web site with your own computer, using an Internet connection and hosting services that you purchase from voluntary sellers with the fruits of your labor?

6. What the hell does blocking access to Web sites featuring "jokes and alcohol" have to do with preventing chaos?

NEXT: A Family-Friendly, Smoke-Free Atmosphere of Intolerant Meddling

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  1. 6. What the hell does blocking access to Web sites featuring “jokes and alcohol” have to do with preventing violent chaos?

    Have you ever seen a Chinaman with a lampshade on his head? Not a pretty sight.

  2. I can’t help but have some serious schadenfreude over google’s troubles. I will admit they make a damn fine search engine and I don’t begrudge anyone who makes a useful product getting rich. What bugs me about google is the snarky leftish nature of the “don’t be evil” corporate slogan. The implication of course being that the normal state of affairs for a corporation is to be evil and they need to remind everyone that they are different. In reality of course, it is leftists whose normal state of affairs is to be evil and corporations who normally contribute to the common good. Of course we found out that “don’t be evil” really means “don’t be evil, just help other people be evil if there is a buck to be made.”

    Google will pay a price for this in the end. Someday the Chinese will be free and their huge market will still be there bigger than ever and google.cn’s brand name will be synonymous with oppression and lame search results.

  3. How about “Chinese,” jf, huh? And, frankly, jokes and alcohol are worth a little chaos. In the memorable words of LBJ (a true Democrat), “the only three things that make life worth living are sex, whiskey, and sunshine.”

  4. He’s got Russia exactly backwards. There was a great deal of “libertarian-ization” of the economic sphere, carried out amist a callow certainty that getting state property into private hands would create an enterpreneurian, propertied cohort who would be able to push back against government encroachment on economic or personal freedom. Very much the “Free Minds, Free Market” philosophy.

    But it failed thoroughly to work. The propertied, entrepreneurial cohort jumped eagerly into bed with the government. As it turned out, they didn’t become like American small business owners in the 1990s. They became like German big business owners in the 1930s. (Skirting, skirting…)

    The business class in Russia wasn’t the ally of democratic civil society, because 1) there really wasn’t a democratic civil society in Russia, and 2) what there was in place of a democratic civil society was a black market.

    DeLong seems certain that ongoing economic growth spurred by a “private” sector that is deep in bed with the government will bring about a cohort that will serve to push the government and society towards liberalization. Russia’s example would seem to suggest the opposite – that perestroika without glastnost will simply defang the potentially-subversive economic sector.

  5. Sebastian Mallaby had a somewhat persuasive defense of Google in the Washington Post a few days ago. Even if you buy his argument, though, to move from there to defending the Chinese government is … odd.

  6. Is it me, or is DeLong proceeding on the bizarre assumption Chinese leaders are basically thinking like libertarian public choice theorists? Am I alone in finding that, uh, implausible?

  7. He’s got Russia exactly backwards. There was a great deal of “libertarian-ization” of the economic sphere, carried out amist a callow certainty that getting state property into private hands would create an enterpreneurian, propertied cohort who would be able to push back against government encroachment on economic or personal freedom.

    That may have been the idea, but what actually happened was merely a shell game by which public enterprises were transferred to well-connected apparatchiks, which predictably resulted in little or no real change in those operations or in the Russian economy. At the ground level, what used to be the black market now operates legitimately, and there is no question that Russians have far more consumer choice than they did 20 years ago. That said, the major enterprises of the Russian economy are a disaster zone. Were it not for the increased profitability of the energy sector (a fact which Russia had nothing to do with), I say the Russian economy would have long ago gotten so bad that some kind of revolution would have occurred. Just a ‘what if’, of course.

    As for China, corruption and regional instability will take that country down long before she becomes a real threat to anyone else. I predict India will rapidly overtake China as a rising power. DeLong’s theory is nice in an academic navel-gazing sort of way, but all I see when I look at the Chinese leadership is a kleptocracy that realized they could live a lot better by using their slave labor to sell gadget shit to the west, rather than to make useless home pig-iron factories. The financial and legal institutions of the PRC are a very weak foundation on which to build an advanced nation.

  8. Have you ever seen a Chinaman with a lampshade on his head? Not a pretty sight.

    Just to let you know gently, “Chinaman” is considered offensive in some circles.

    The proper term is “Chinaperson.

  9. ChrisO,

    You are correct, it was not a libertarian-approved privatization.

    My only point was that the callow “Washington Consensus” thinking went awry in assuming that putting economic power in private hands was sufficient to creat a culture of free marketeers, which would defend society against government takeover, and that DeLong goes similarly awry in his argument about “perestroika” preceding “glastnost.”

    OK, that’s two points.

  10. An argument can be made for putting economic reform before the introduction of free and open elections. Maybe not the best argument, or maybe a great argument (take your pick) but it can be made. I see no need to rehash the frequent H&R discussions of whether economic freedom can be secured in a system of elected government.

    An argument can also be made for putting free speech before the introduction of free and open elections. In fact, a very good argument can be made: A civil society needs to emerge so that when free and open elections are held there are some widely respected moderates in place to win them. Now, maybe that works out in practice, or maybe it doesn’t work so well in practice, but at least the argument can be made.

    However, even if one believes that the vote must be postponed, I see no valid argument for postponing free speech. Let free speech and economic freedom blossom together.

    FWIW, I think the argument for slowly introducing elections is better than the argument for postponing elections. You can make an argument for starting with local elections, then state/regional/provincial/whatever elections, and then finally national elections.

    Anyway, I’m well aware that the Chinese won’t be making any decisions based on what we post here, but we can at least rebut the arguments of American pundits who want to make apologies for Communists.

    (And yes, I’m aware that free speech can be formulated as a property right due to self-ownership, blah blah blah, and that newspapers and magazines are businesses, etc. Fine. If you want to take that approach then that just reinforces the case for allowing free speech along with economic reform.)

  11. The Chinaman is not the issue, Stevo.

  12. My only point was that the callow “Washington Consensus” thinking went awry in assuming that putting economic power in private hands was sufficient to creat a culture of free marketeers, which would defend society against government takeover, and that DeLong goes similarly awry in his argument about “perestroika” preceding “glastnost.”

    That’s a good point. From the libertarian perspective, I would say that it is actually impossible to “put” economic power in private hands. All the gubbimint can really do in that regard is get the heck out of the way and let people do what economic activity they will. The sell-off of Russian state enterprises was going to be difficult in any event. Most of them were almost worthless, and Russian nationalism would have made it difficult to sell them to foreign investors who could bring in the know-how to turn them around.

    The more radical theory was to simply let the state industries die off and be replaced with new legitimate business organizations built by investors from the ground up. Again, though, this would have required massive foreign capital, which is something the Russians have been wary of. It also would have required an end to state intervention, which never truly occurred, even under the Yeltsin regime.

    Because of these factors, I don’t believe that much about the Russian Experience provides a useful guidepost to what’s going on in China. Beyond the corruption and lack of business certainly inherent in type of “state capitalism” practiced now in China, I think the sort of centralized decision-making characteristic of that system makes long-term business success unlikely, as happened to Japan in the early ’90s. Such systems are slow to adapt and often respond to non-economic factors (cronyism) that result in massive losses. To an extent, I see what’s going on with China now as a more militantly nationalistic and bigger version of what Japan went through in the ’80s. They seem to be making many of the same mistakes, but even worse due to the government-ownership angle

  13. That should read “lack of business certainty”.

  14. “So, what is a Chinese leader dedicated to the welfare of the people to do, given this incredible uncertainty, and the lack of convincing models?”

    The mistaken assumption that any Chinese leader is “dedicated to the welfare of the people” makes this entire article suspect.

  15. That may have been the idea, but what actually happened was merely a shell game by which public enterprises were transferred to well-connected apparatchiks, which predictably resulted in little or no real change in those operations or in the Russian economy.

    Judging by the high percentage of state-owned shares in most of China’s large companies, it could be argued that this is what’s happening there as well. Not to mention that many of the recent peasant revolts (some involving as many as 50,000 people) were over government confiscation of farmland to build factories for politically favoured companies.

  16. So, what is a Chinese leader dedicated to the welfare of the people to do, given this incredible uncertainty, and the lack of convincing models

    Lead a revolution based on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

  17. The Chinaman is not the issue, Stevo.

    I had to look that one up.

    I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, dude.

  18. BREAH!!!

  19. H? J?nt?o to the Chinese people: “When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.”

  20. Interesting that not so long ago the right wing stood for ‘engagement’ and understanding with the racist government of South Africa (dedicated to the welfare of the people?) but seems to want to take an isolationist and confrontational role in the developing changes in China. Google’s pragmatism seems like ‘engagement’ to me. As for “What bugs me about Google is the snarky leftish nature of the “don’t be evil” corporate slogan,” you must get bugged a lot! How about the snarky leftish nature of slogans like ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill?” Seems to be a bit of projection going on here. For myself if a simple straightforward statement like “don’t be evil” is snarkily leftist and needs to be rejected by the ‘right’ I’ll take it.

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