China wants to censor and innovate but can’t do both

chinese flagI covered a curious story this week detailing the latest Politburo edict on how China intends to be a technology superpower in a few short decades.

Now normally pronouncements from high up in the Party are pretty anodyne statements filled with ever higher targets to be reached and plenty of political jargon but this one stood out in terms of what the careful commentator can read between the lines.

Yes, there was the usual rhetoric about reaching targets – in this case to become an “innovation-oriented country” by 2020 and a “world technological power” by 2049.

But there was also a rare near-admission of failure – the “severe challenges” which technological development in the country faces. The government even admitted it needed to airlift in some “high calibre” foreign talent to help it out.

What I find fascinating about the desire to become a “world technological power” is that China is sort of one already really, with huge global companies like Huawei and Lenovo.

On the other hand, the admission that it hasn’t innovated enough in the past would lead many to argue that this is because its firms have gone on a decades-long and unparalleled spree of industrial espionage for Western firms to accelerate their development thus far.

The subtext is it wants to be number one or thereabouts, in every part of tech, and this will require it to innovate like never before and internationalise.

However, here’s why I don’t think it will be able to do this, at least in the world of the web – censorship and control.

I’ve spoken to several experts in the area of censorship and they all agree – you can’t nurture a truly innovative web industry if you’re requiring any firm with user-generated content (UGC) to spend hefty sums censoring that content or running the risk of getting shut down completely if the government doesn’t take kindly to what you’re doing.

Former CNN Beijing bureau chief Rebecca MacKinnon told me any firm wanting to get involved in UGC would be in a “very tough business” in China, while Charles Mok, founding chair of the Hong Kong Internet Society, argued that web firms in the PRC had gotten lazy over the past 10-15 years.

“They just need to put a spin on what others are doing with Chinese characteristics – Western companies can’t do this,” he said. “There is a sense that ‘I just need to do what you are doing and not get shut down’.”

Now I’m not saying UGC is the be-all-and-end-all but there aren’t many cutting edge web firms these days which don’t feature some form of it.

Ultimately this indigenous innovation piece will take decades to achieve anyway, but if it’s going to happen it’ll have to do so alongside the restrictive controls of the state, and I can’t really see that happening.

It’s interesting to see Sina roll out its credit system to users this week. I guess that’s an example of a Chinese web firm trying to innovate, but only to make its self (or state-mandated) censorship restrictions on content appear more palatable.

What kind of social media platform asks its members to snitch on others if they see them breaking the rules? (rules which, by the way, prevent such terrible things as spreading rumours or calling for mass gatherings).

It has effectively turned all that is good about social media – collaborating, sharing, freedom of expression – and turned it on its head so that fear, suspicion, and self-interest prevail.

It will be a sorry state of affairs if a nation that demands that of its technology providers becomes the pre-eminent global tech superpower.

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