Will the continued development of wireless, the Internet, and other communications technologies provide sufficient counterweights to authoritarian trends in countries such as Russia and China?
PARTICIPATING AUTHORS: BENJAMIN A. ELMAN
Benjamin E. Elman is Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University and Director of the Princeton University Program in East Asian Studies. He is the author of two Harvard books: On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900 and A Cultural History of Modern Science in China.
If we think that new technologies will on their own eventually unravel authoritarian trends in China, we should think again. The telegraph in China promised a speed-up of communications and wider access to information at the turn of the twentieth century, but Manchu and Chinese authorities under the last imperial dynasty controlled the new telegraph offices and ensured that the government and the police monopolized them. When the leaders of the Republican revolution unexpectedly gained the upper hand during October 10, 1911, demonstrations in the inland city of Wuchang, the "Chicago of China," they quickly took over the local telegraph office to broadcast their triumph. For example, they wired a revolutionary message declaring Sun Yat-sen the first President of the Republic of China. Sun was then in exile in the United States and riding a train to Denver when he heard the news while reading a newspaper. When Sun returned to Shanghai in triumph in December, he was appointed president of the provisional government. So far so good, but the telegraph could not stay out in front for good. In January, President Sun reached an impasse, and he resigned his position in favor of Yuan Shikai, a former general under the previous Manchu regime, who quickly extinguished the promise of the Republican revolt at Wuchang. Thereafter the Republic of China limited the public use of the telegraph to the government and accepted organizations. State-controlled media was the rule thereafter.
Yue Meng, professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of Toronto, is currently working on an interesting project that evaluates the impact of new technologies, such as the telegraph, for rapid communication at the turn of the 20th century in China. It is very sobering to learn how quickly the weaker Republican state, and the 1920s warlords it engendered, gained quick control over such new technologies. Meng compares the successful limits applied to the internet today by the much stronger Communist state to the reining in of the telegraph 90 years before by the weaker Republicans. Media technologies, such as telegraphs, telephones, faxes, and the internet do not exist independently of their social and political contexts. Faxes, like the telegraph, moved briefly out in front of the violent events surrounding the June 4, 1989, tragedy, but fax machines were quickly rendered harmless. Authoritarian political cultures must first change, as Japan’s and Germany’s have, before the new media technologies can enable permanent public counterweights to the return of autocracy. Under the reins of an authoritarian Chinese state, the information highway can just as easily be hijacked in the name of Chinese nationalism. Imagine if the internet had been available when Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution in 1966, and we can perhaps understand why the media is as prone to repression as it is towards free speech. The fault lies not in the media; it lies in us.