Tweeting with Uncle Sam
The idea of using social networks to bring about political change is the brainchild of the cyber freedom fighters of North Africa and Middle East. After watching its effectiveness, the United States has brazenly adopted it. It has opened up its own tweeting blogs to communicate with the Chinese, Iranian, and Arab masses. Hillary Clinton has been giving speeches on the issue of the Internet freedom. The Department of State has also set up twitter accounts in Arabic and Farsi to reach the Middle Eastern bloggers. America is peddling the new ‘freedom agenda’ through the use of the Internet and Tweeting.
The use of the Internet and other related social networks are the new weapons for spreading freedom all over the global "autocratistan." The Internet and the social network ousted two dictators of the Arab world, and a few more despots are appearing increasingly wobbly.
The Obama administration’s initial response to regime change in Tunisia and especially in Egypt was characterized by a sustained hesitation and daily flip-flops. When Husni Mubarak was ousted, and when the Islamists did not suddenly take over Egyptian streets, the political status-quo driven bureaucrats in Washington became a bit more daring. So a decision has been made in the bowels of the White House and the Department of State that the US should jump in front of the tsunami for political change. The United States is using the Internet freedom as a tool to bring about regime change in Iran and open up China, both countries it deems as its rival of different proportions.
The Obama administration is also getting into the business of setting up "twitter-like microblogs," whose effectiveness in spreading the news–especially the news that a particular autocratic regime does not want the world to see or hear–is being proven daily, as political unrest continues to spread in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Jordan.
The reason the US government has fallen in love with the microblogs is that it works on a fast-paced technology, which cannot be effectively controlled even by the government of China, which is probably the most advanced country in the world in terms of its mastery of cyber warfare. More important, the US embassy in China is increasingly attempting to interact with the Chinese people, an audacious step indeed. Despite China’s attempt to block its indigenous social networks, "locally operated services like Sina Corp and Tencent Holdings Ltd" are attracting millions of users. In addition, "Chinese websites are developing creative ways to filter content on microblogs in accordance with government regulations that are less conspicuous than other censorship tools–even as microblog users come up with ways to evade them."
The Chinese government, as deft as it has been in developing countermeasures to America’s highly sophisticated high-tech military platforms and to breach the ever-powerful firewalls of America’s security agencies, is showing its effectiveness in developing countermeasures to block microblogs. One tactic is to allow microblog discussions "while blocking related keywords that lead others to join in." Another tactic is "to allow users to post comments to their own micro-blogging websites, but block other users from seeing the posts." One can be rest assured that a lot of infowar-type of specialists working for the government of China are carefully studying all the tactics of the Arab protestors in cyberspace in order to develop countermeasures.
Even under the scenario of accelerated regime changes in the Middle East and North Africa – though not a realistic one – there are no prospects of a similar development inside China. The growing numbers of Tunisians and Egyptians, who are fleeing their countries for Europe even after the fall of dictators in search of jobs, demonstrate that economic misery might be the chief reason for mounting popular anger toward the brutal and highly inept rulers.
As long China’s economy remains highly vibrant, and as long as the standard of living in that country continues to rise, people are likely to go along with the lack of freedom. The greatest fear of the leaders in Beijing is the development of uncontrollable downward trends in the performance of their economy. As long as that does not happen, only a small number of Chinese will be indulging in freedom-related activities. That is the greatest obstacle in the way of America’s desire to even open up the Chinese autocratic system.
At the same, it is hard to understand why Washington is suddenly promoting the agenda of opening up of the Chinese political system. A global promotion of such a policy may not be in the best interests of the United States, for it is likely to lead to regime change in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran and Jordan. Of these, only a potential regime change in Iran will be a welcoming development for the U.S.; but certainly not a regime change in China, which might also result in its implosion. Such a scenario is also likely to result in terrible instability in East Asia.
In the final analysis, the current contest between Washington and Beijing about the opening up of blogosphere is not going anywhere. There will be lot of new measures and countermeasures from both sides, but the information will continue to flow. However, as long as China does not face a sustained economic downturn, even the unrelenting spread of information will not lead to the opening up of the political system.
Ehsan Ahrari, Ph.D. is a specialist in great power relations and transnational security. His latest book on great power relations is entitled, The Great Powers and the Hegemon: Strategic Maneuvers. He can be reached at email@example.com