The Olympics and the Eyes of World

Hosting the Olympics has been a bittersweet experience so far for China, particularly for those that would have wanted this to be a showcase for the tremendous advances that have taken place in China over the past two decades. For a government that is accustomed to shaping the coverage of major issues in the media and blocking Internet content that it finds to be overly critical, this must be a trying time. By hosting the Olympics, China has invited into their country a large cadre of foreign reporters, whose raison d’être is to find the unreported story. In China there are many of these.

Rather than writing just about the stunning economic growth and development successes in China, journalists continue to focus on several of the vexing and persistent problems there, such as the pollution and the numerous human rights and governance issues such as Tibet. None of us are surprised that the issue of Internet censorship in China is getting wide coverage around the world, reaching audiences that knew little about this phenomenon prior to this summer.

Coverage of the Internet openness issue in Beijing has focused on unmet promises and the websites that are not available to foreign journalists. Few thought that China would completely turn off the filters during the Olympics. However, many of us expected the creation of an unfiltered enclave for foreign journalists and visitors. This is the approach taken by Tunisia, another notorious filterer of the Internet, when it hosted the WSIS conference in Tunis in 2005. The Tunisian government also took a lot of heat – the manifest irony of hosting a conference devoted the topic of information while maintaining a system hostile to free expression was widely reported.

China chose not to follow this route. Instead, we have seen a loosening of Internet censorship across the country for a number of high-profile news and human rights sites. The intense media attention brought by journalists promised an open Internet undoubtedly played a key role in this change. We'll probably be wrong in trying to guess why China chose this approach, but their choice – unblocking key sites nation-wide – suggests that this was considered better than Tunisia’s WSIS strategy. Perhaps having two levels of access inside China is incongruent with the benefits of filtering put forth by the government, which are reportedly shared by many in China. Are those sites that are harmful to China not harmful if restricted to the eyes of foreign visitors?

Regardless of the reasons for this particular choice, the fact that millions of users can now access the Chinese versions of Wikipedia and BBC is far more significant than foreign journalists having trouble accessing websites for 2 weeks of their lives.

The decision in 2001 to grant China the 2008 Olympics was controversial at the time, as now. Opponents demanded greater openness and a better human rights record before awarding the Olympics to China, while proponents argued that the event would act as an impetus and lever for openness and reform. This is the Olympic version of the age-old debate whether it is more productive to engage or shun repressive governments. By the narrow measure of access to foreign websites, the events so far seem to weigh in favor of the pro-engagement argument.

Charlie Nesson urges us to focus on the ‘slope of the freedom curve’ when thinking globally about freedom of expression. This does not mean that we should ignore the continuing restrictions on individual freedoms or persistent human rights abuses. We should, however, acknowledge that reform is a lengthy process and we should pause to appreciate and laud the incremental changes and signs of progress. None of us expect the government regulators to abruptly throw off the shackles that have been placed on Internet users in China. The path to reducing or eliminating filtering in China will be a marathon not a sprint.

We do not know whether this openness will persist. It would not be unusual in China to block these sites again at the conclusion of the Olympics; numerous sites have been blocked and unblocked sporadically by Internet censors in China. Fans of BBC and Wikipedia, read quickly. Let’s see if the advances are permanent.