The Great Firewall of China

It's easy to wish away China's intense feelings of nationalism by saying the Chinese are in an information bubble. They're not -- something else is at work here.
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Why do the Chinese think the world loves them when they don't? Blame the Internet firewall. Or so a misguided Op-Ed in the Washington Post this morning would have us believe.

At issue is a recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey. According to the poll, the Chinese are the most contented people on the planet. They're mostly satisfied with their country's overall direction and think the world likes them. Of course, attitudes toward the Chinese aren't so rosy in the other countries polled. China's "unfavorable" ratings are high in Japan, France, India, the U.S., and Russia.

Why the disconnect? The firewall has very little, if anything, to do with it. Major news sites may be restricted in China, but China ain't North Korea. It's not a hermetically sealed bubble.

For one thing, China's Internet security apparatus, like its manufacturing sector, is mostly people powered, not technology powered. They've got thousands of snoops who pad around the Internet looking for trouble makers. But this method is woefully inadequate to monitor a cell phone and Internet user base that is larger than ours. Via text messaging and the blogosphere, memes and information from the rest of the world spread like wildfire among China's digital users.

It's easy to wish away China's intense feelings of nationalism by saying the Chinese are in an information bubble. They're not. Something else is at work here.

Part of the disconnect is in the eye of the beholder. We see China as a juggernaut about to roll over the next century. The Chinese do not see themselves this way.

They see a country with over one billion desperately poor people. They see a country whose skills and capabilities still lag decades behind the West. They see a country with half its population living on the size of the state of Texas, surrounded by mostly unarable land and a sinking water table. The Chinese remember poverty. They remember famine. Many remember Mao and the millions who died. We see China's startling economic boom. We see them as a superpower. They see themselves as a "poor superpower."

The problem with measuring attitudes is that you're measuring attitudes -- in short, rumor and opinion. The world was wrong about Japan's world domination. So polling people's attitudes toward Japan in the 1980's would have been largely unhelpful. Today, the world is still mostly in the dark about China. Holding a mirror up to our own attitudes doesn't move us any closer to reality.

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