Late last week Thomas L. Friedman has a great piece on China, nationalism and the state of Chinese media.
Friedman’s point — after dealing with the nationalism issue that is a growing problem in China is that the Internet continues to be a major problem for the Chinese government because it is difficult to control and it gives individuals access to information and a forum to speak out.
“China for the first time has a public sphere to discuss everything affecting Chinese citizens,” explained Hu Yong, a blogosphere expert at Peking University. “Under traditional media, only elite people had a voice, but the Internet changed that.”
The power of the Internet is, perhaps, more strongly felt in countries whose governments spend outrageous amounts of money and manpower trying to censor the information their people get.
For sure the Internet is powerful in the United States. How else could the “9/11 Was and Inside Job” conspiracy freaks, Birthers and Intelligent Designers get so much publicity? But for intelligent people, the claims of these whack jobs are seen as the frauds they are. Because there is a strong tradition of free and independent media that allows for the exposure of all ideas. No matter how wacky.
But in China, Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as in many (too many) other countries, the only access to non-government approved information is on the Internet. The problem is that in such societies EVERYTHING seen on the Internet is seen as being factual.
The lack of competing data on issues often leaves those first exposed to this idea bewildered.
I recall during the 1992 U.S. presidential election, Chinese journalists were invited to the U.S. Cultural Affairs office in Shanghai to watch the election returns. The office was snagging satellite feeds from the major U.S. networks so we could watch the results coming in.
At one point one network awarded a state to candidate Clinton but none of the other outlets had yet done so. The Chinese journalists were besides themselves trying to understand how different news outlets could have different information about the same event. They wondered how the government could allow one news outlet to jump the gun on what was clearly information that should come from a government official.
I was on hand — at the invitation of the Cultural Affairs officer — to help explain how free media work and how the government does not have a role in U.S. news gathering.
The fun part about using me to do the explanation was that I did not have to pull any punches about the evils of state-censorship and the benefits of free and independent media. (The State Department folks could say the same thing but in a much more polite manner.)
Since 1992 the number of working journalists push the envelope on what they try to report on is growing. Sometimes they win and cracks in the censorship rules appear. Other times — more often than not — the journalists are either fired and forbidden from working as journalists ever again in China or they are transferred to some far and distant province as “punishment” for the heresy of decent reporting.
Now the people of China are learning more and more about the power that they have in their hands — actually at their keyboards.
I find it encouraging that the U.S. ambassador in China is meeting with bloggers in China.
To me, the action of Ambassador Huntsman to reach out to bloggers shows that some of the people in the State Department (appointees and professional) “get” the new media.
It could also lead to a more serious effort by the Chinese government to crack down on “unofficial” sources of news transmission. The bloggers who dare identify themselves and who accept the possible threats to them and their family for openly meeting with the U.S. ambassador are to be congratulated and praised.
I would be interested in knowing more about these bloggers and why they were chosen to meet with the ambassador. And what they have written as a result of those meetings.
I would also like to see more U.S. ambassadors — and their senior embassy staff — meet with more bloggers.
Is it being done? Hard to tell by looking at the State Department website.
It also raises a question: Should ambassadors in countries with free media — United Kingdom, Brazil, Hong Kong, etc. — go out of their way to woo bloggers? Or at least spend time talking with them?
The answer is an unequivocal, “Yes!”
If it taken as a given that the role of the U.S. embassy is to represent the people of the United States to not only the host government but also to the people of the host country, then reaching out to the most popular bloggers is an important part of fulfilling that role.
I would be interested to learn from others if the U.S. diplomatic leadership around the world is doing what Huntsman is doing.
And if not, why not?