How China tamed the Internet — priming it for growth

 President Xi Xinping

President Xi Xinping

Darlington Musarurwa
BIG SAM, as America is affectionately known, is in mourning once again, and this time it is not at the hands of a bearded, tan-skinned and gun-totting jihadist.

In fact, Sunday’s attack on concert-goers in Las Vegas, which claimed the lives of 59 people and wounded more than 500, was the handiwork of a thoroughly white, thoroughly American loony.

The incident couldn’t have been any more stark: A quintessentially American country music cultural event — where the audience had previously sang “God Bless America” — coming under attack from one of its own; a thrilling musical fiesta being cut shot by a real-life thriller of hellish gunfire.

Even Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t have made this up. Thankfully, by the colour of his skin, Steven Paddock has escaped the infamous tag of a terrorist.
Even in death, the white American is dignified: he is called a shooter, a gunman and attacker.

It is ghastly to imagine how Washington could have reacted had the shade of his skin been any more darker.

But how a civilian can buy such an impressive armoury of military-grade weapons is nothing short of shocking. But as American investigators try to pry open the mind of the so-called shooter, one thing is for certain: Such incidences show the excesses of absolute freedoms granted under the cover of democracy.

Such episodes also clearly show that freedom and rights cannot be absolute. Any instrument that gives ordinary citizens and civilians power has to be controlled and regulated by the State.

And this also applies to social media and the Internet, which, over the years, has given citizens extraordinary power and reach.

Through a simple mobile phone, netizens (users of the Internet) can now reach any corner of the globe; and, most importantly, through social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, WeChat et cetera, individuals have now assumed the power that was once exclusively enjoyed by powerful media houses.

The only difference is that media practitioners are supposed to be professional news gatherers and processors whose major selling point is not only selling information, but vending true facts as well.

Admittedly, through the abuse of mass media by political, economic and social interests, people are becoming increasingly sceptical of the traditional media and gravitating towards the new media, which is governed by their peers.

Borrowing the “magic bullet” effect of the traditional media, social media platforms have now been able to cast the same spell newspapers, radio and televisions enjoyed for decades.

But without a governance structure, which restricts and controls behaviour on social media platforms, the world wide web (www) has seemingly evolved into the wild, wild, west (www), where no rules and morals apply.

The pervasive influence and power of the Internet now allows anyone to broadcast almost anything — either good or bad — without the attendant consequences.

And America, which strangely calls itself the leader of the free world, prefers it that way.

Counting the cost of free Internet

Zimbabwe has, however, learnt the hard way.

The country is still smarting from the irresponsible actions of individuals who recently circulated news that the country was headed for another painful chapter of basic commodity shortages.

It triggered nationwide panic, which saw a run on supermarkets as people tried to stock up their pantries.

While the rumour eventually died down, its lingering impact has significantly disrupted the markets.

Opportunistic price increases which were effected by the ever-predatory local retailers, are still in force in supermarkets.

Perhaps the most devastating effect the mischievous social media messages have had is to destroy the little trust that exists between bankers and depositors, including consumers and retailers.

The unlawful three-tier pricing system for different payment methods — mobile money (mainly EcoCash), debit cards and real time gross settlement system (RTGS) — is a clear indication of how the national payment ecosystem has been disrupted.

As ordinary consumers count the cost of yet another episode of social media mischief, no doubt the dissident netizen(s), obviously beyond the reach of law, has been left to carry on with his or her miserable life.

This shows how the Internet, most particularly social media platforms, can be weaponised to become instruments of evil and destruction.

Trump & Brexit: Monsters created by social media

But this is not peculiar to Zimbabwe.

Developed countries are also trying to come to terms with the harmful effects social media has had on their own politics, social cohesion and economic fortunes.

Academics and scholars now think that the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States — who is largely considered to be a presidential misfit — and the exit of Britain from the European Union bloc, referred to as Brexit, were the unseen and unintended consequences of social media networks.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV on Tuesday October 3, 2017, Scottish historian and academic, Professor Niall Ferguson, noted that if it hadn’t been for social media networks, particularly Facebook, both the election of Donald Trump and Brexit would not have been possible.

The academic, who is a senior fellow at Hoover Institution and a lecturer at Harvard, this month published a new book, The Square and the Tower:

Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, that tries to explain the impact social media networks have had on global political and social dynamics.

“The book”, he told Bloomberg, “shows that if it hadn’t been for the social network platforms, particularly Facebook, it would have been almost impossible for the Brexit and Trump campaign to succeed.

“In conventional elections, they would have been outspent and defeated. But social networks are extraordinarily powerful in our time, and people, I think, still underestimate this.

“Think of it: 45 percent of Americans now get their news from Facebook, and that makes Facebook, in effect, the most powerful content publisher in American history; perhaps world history. And we are still grappling with the implications of that.”

How China has tamed the Internet

A country that is not grappling with the potential deleterious effects of the Internet and social media is China, which, to America’s dismay, is providing an alternative model for both economic and political development.

Contrary America’s continued gospel of internet freedom, China has recognised the need to curb the excesses of unrestricted freedoms on social media networks. In the same way the Asian country has harnessed the positive forces of capitalism, it continues to do the same with the Internet.

Rather than weaponising social media networks, China is using them for the greater good of the Chinese people in line with the dictates of its communist and socialist ideology.

With more than 730 million netizens, or Internet users, and close to 1,2 billion mobile phone users, who at 350 yuan (US$55) per year enjoy low and unlimited broadband data, one shudders to think how China would have been able to govern over 1,4 billion people that make up the communist country if they were all left to their designs.

Reining in the Internet is central to the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s governance.

While handing over the privilege of using social media networks, all of which are heavily monitored by government, the CPC expects beneficiaries to be responsible in return. It’s quite a fair trade-off.

Pseudonyms are not allowed when opening social media accounts, which eliminates anonymity and its attendant mischief. And social media users are expected to be accountable for their actions.

Abuse naturally attracts heavy punishment and closure of the social media account.

While joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001 obliged the country to open up its cyberspace, China still retains its sovereign right to govern and control it.

On May 7, 2017, President Xi Xinping again reaffirmed the country’s commitment to tighten Internet regulations through strengthening controls over search engines and online news portals.

Most importantly, the five-year cultural development plan that was released by the CPC then, restated the need to “strike hard against online rumours, harmful information, fake news, news extortion, fake media and fake reporters.”

Quite clearly, all these have become the bane of the new media. Arguably, by minimising mischief, China has been able to get the maximum possible benefit from ICT start-ups that are making good of the powerful resource.

While America and other European countries continue to rail against the Chinese stance, which they regard as authoritarian, they continue to do the same far away from the prying eyes of their subjects.

Revelations by Julian Assange through Wikileaks and former CIA employee Edward Snowden are quite instructive. In 2013, Snowden told the world of a computer software programme called Tempora, which was used by the British spy agency to tap into global internet communications.

The information so gathered was also shared with American spy agencies.

This is precisely the reason why China has shut out Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Whats App.

As one of the pre-conditions for the social media networks to enjoy the lucrative Chinese market, they are expected to set up servers for personal information gathered in China in order to ensure that they are not accessed by intrusive third parties.

Russia is following suit, and has since given Facebook an ultimatum to set up such servers in the country.

Shutting down the Internet

African countries, Zimbabwe included, should be proactive in governing and harnessing the power of the Internet.

Being behind the curve all the time does not help, and this is why African governments have often had to rely on the most brutal and crude way of controlling the Internet – shutting it down, especially during elections.

Yet there is a huge youthful demographic dividend, which is ICT savvy, the so-called digital natives.

This resource needs to be exploited to develop specific programmes that are unique to the African situation. But obviously it needs resources, particularly from governments, in order to sponsor research and development, including start-ups.

As technology continues to dictate the pace of development, it is beyond doubt that the geeks will inherit the earth.

Such reforms necessarily have to begin with the Computer Crime and Cybercrime Bill that will be tabled before Parliament soon.

Not only should it be an instrument of controlling the Internet, it must also be used to guide economic development.

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