Oh, Murky World – Or Virtual Containment in the Bo Xilai trial

There has been a lot of debate about what the Bo Xilai trial means for China. It seems to me, by and large, the global media has bought into it as a legitimate event with real significance for the outcome of the direction of China. The thinking seems to be that, no matter how confected the setting, the Chinese Communist Party would have never allowed it to proceed, doling out parts of transcripts to an eager media, if the party leaders didn’t need to. And they needed offer some transparency to public in exchange for the legitimacy the Chinese Communist Party craves.

In effect, it was authenticity under glass. Canned authenticity.

But events such as the Bo Xilai trial are standard operating procedure for an authoritarian regime, according to an ex-State Department analyst and the current head of Google in their book. The New Digital Age, written before the celebrated trial of China’s fallen neo-Maoist leader, by Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt has a passage about what they call the “virtual containment” authoritarian regimes use online.

To relieve the pressure of an agitated, informed public, states will calculate that rather than deny services altogether, it’s better to crack a window and allow citizens to vent their grievances in public on the Internet – but, more important, only to a certain degree.

Regimes in the future will allow some online dissent, whether by reforming the law or simply not prosecuting the speech, but only on their terms, through specific channels they control.

And that sounds like posting on Weibo or other forums inside the Great Firewall. The book outlines the risk inherent in the “virtual containment” model – how to discern the between sanctioned venting by irate citizens that doesn’t challenge the status quo and legitimate opposition forming that could turn into a revolution.

 In open societies, laws regarding freedom of speech and hate speech largely define the boundaries for citizens, but in closed countries that lack legal precedents for allowable speech, the government is operating somewhat blindly. It will be very difficult for states to determine the intent behind people’s words online – if they’re not known dissidents, have no ties to opposition groups and don’t stick out in any particular way, how does a government newly committed to open dialogue respond without going too far?

This unknowable quality will make digital noise the big wild card for authorities as they struggle to first assess and then react. Getting it wrong, by overreaction or underreaction, could be lethal for a regime.

…and that, my friends, sounds like a day in the life of the Chinese Communist Party trying to perch itself, however precariously, on top of their population. Now, it’s true the sanctioned venting could mask the kind of opposition that crystallizes into an alternative movement. Yet, China’s authorities seem attuned exactly to this fine and wavering line.

The party’s legitimacy oscillates by the day and sometimes hour in how it responds to a variety of issues while it tries to anticipate the situation on the ground for its citizen. That’s why China is, at least for now, as one intel analyst explained to me: “government by Band-Aid.”

photo Bo Xilai, courtesy: China.org.cn

The impact of Ed Snowden’s bombshell disclosures

I’m not sure what impact Snowden’s leaks/whistleblowing will have on reforming US domestic surveillance. However, the Snowden leaks have revealed US intelligence operations in Hong Kong, Germany, UK and Brazil. These bombshells will continue to be drip-fed to the global public, creating a sort of touchtone of irritation between the US and many other countries.  The information will highlight the perceived hegemony of the US in the new online sphere, irritating activists, governments and opposition governments.

At the same time, back home in the US, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has struggled to spark a national debate about a surveillance state. At last count, a petition demanding that Congress take the NSA to task for the lack of oversight on these programs garnered only 500,000 signatures – and it’s not clear how many of those were American. That’s 500,000 out of a nation of 310 million. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has also apologized for lying to Congress. 

But at this point, the bigger impact so far is clearly to US relations abroad. Already there have been calls in China to ditch US-based Cisco as a provider of internet infrastructure. These threats to the overseas business of Cisco come after the US barred Federal agencies from using Huawei infrastructure and routers, in the months before Snowden began leaking to the media. Australia has done the same thing.

But why? The implication at the time was that Huawei would build spyware into the equipment that could be used against foreign governments. However, a better, more nuanced explanation can be found in the book, The New Digital Age:

In the future, superpower supplier nations will look to create their spheres of online influence around specific protocols and products, so that their technologies form the backbone of a particular society and their client states come to rely on certain critical infrastructure that the superpower alone builds, services and controls.

If Huawei is the provider of underlying internet backbone technology in a given country, Huawei will have more influence over what kind of products flourish there.

The book goes on:

There are currently four main manufacturers of telecommunications equipment: Sweden’s Ericsson, China’s Huawei, France’s Alcatel-Lucent and Cisco in the United States. China would certainly benefit from large portions of the world using its hardware and software, because the Chinese government has dominating influences over what its companies do.

In a political crisis, this has great implications, with a Chinese company having few qualms about aiding a local government in suppressing the communications and organization of a rebel movement, for example.

The irony of course, is that without further reform in the US, American companies have dominating influence over what the US government does. In fact, The New Digital Age is essentially written by Google (the chief executive Eric Schmidt and ex-State Department guy, now Google Ideas head, Jared Cohen.) But as has been noted elsewhere, we are at a stage where the nature of the technology has the US government following the lead of private industry (VF).

The passage continues: “Where Huawei gains market share, the influence and reach of China grow as well.”

Employing some Googlesque wording, the book notes:

Technology companies export their values along with their products, so it is absolutely vital who lays the foundation of connectivity infrastructure…If, for example, a Chinese client state uses its purchased technology to persecute internal minority groups, the United States would have very limited leverage: Legal recourse would be useless. This is a commercial battle with profound security implications.

The New Digital Age gives the example of China building cyber influence in Africa.

China has been remarkably successful in extending its footprint into Africa, trading technical assistance and large infrastructure projects for access to resources and consumer markets, in no small part due to China’s non-interference policy and low bids. Who, then, will those countries likely turn to when they decide start building their cyber arsenal?

In fact, the books points to an ongoing, low-grade cyber war emerging between states, with countries grouped together by both their political allegiances and the source of their technology, which sometimes clash but often go hand-in-hand.

In the wake of Ed Snowden’s leaks to media, which The Guardian can, at their leisure, distribute to the world, there will be more impetus than ever for countries outside the US to build and search out alternatives to US dominated internet infrastructure.

If anything, global backlash from Snowden’s disclosures may accelerate the demand for more US-free alternatives in internet infrastructure, applications and even social media. But for the countries that continue to rely on US services and technology, there will be the tacit acceptance of the US sphere of technological influence.

In time, we will see if this is another sign of the balkanization of the internet and the eventual balkanization of internet technology.