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Sep 28 2010

Interesting experiment in China

I’ve spent a decent number of words decrying the state of free speech in China. Any criticism of the government may be met with complete indifference or being imprisoned, beaten and executed by agents of the state. Anyone who has studied the psychological concept of operant conditioning knows that intermittent reward or punishment leads to the longest term adherence to conditioned behaviour. George Orwell knew it too – in 1984 the vid-screens are only sometimes switched on, but if the thought police happen to catch you, you’re effed.

However, in my occasional habit of (in the interest of appearing much more fair and balanced than I actually am) giving credit where credit is due, there is something interesting happening for free speech in China:

Thousands of Chinese people have posted comments on an internet forum that promised to send their messages direct to the government. Four days after the site was launched by the state-run People’s Daily, more than 27,000 messages had been posted.

Basically, the Chinese government has put up a giant “How Am I Driving?” billboard, and encouraged citizens to air their grievances. It’s hard for me to view this without deep suspicion of an ulterior motive, but it appears to be a genuine attempt to illicit feedback from the populace. In the field of program evaluation (somewhat tangentially related to my own field) there is a concept called ‘Needs Assessment’. The process is fairly self-explanatory, the goal of which is to, by various means, determine what the priority areas are for the population your program intends to serve. A group of fellow students and I went to a small community in Bolivia in the summer of 2007 to, among other things, conduct such an assessment. We learned a couple of important things during the process: 1) that it is much easier to ask questions than it is to address them, and 2) that even the process of explicitly listing priorities can spur the populace to take action.

There’s no larger point to be made from this story, except that a society in which the populace has access to its leaders is much healthier than one in which the voice of the populace is suppressed. I am holding out no great hope that the government will take any dramatic action to address the problems (point 1), but perhaps private enterprise can spur some development toward addressing the problems now that priorities have been made explicit (point 2).

It is interesting to see how the internet is changing the way that governments operate, even in oppressive regimes:

The popular Islam Today website, run by the Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah, has closed a section that contains thousands of Islamic religious rulings, or fatwas. Several websites offering fatwas have recently been blocked, following a decree by King Abdullah. The decree was seen as an attempt to reduce controversial fatwas issued by minor or ultra-conservative clerics.

Much the way that the advent of the printing press, coupled with increased literacy, changed the way that governments related to the people following the Renaissance in Europe and the Middle East, the internet has become a force to contend with. As governments, citizens and corporations struggle to find out a way to adapt to the flood of access to information, it’s nice to see a couple of positive things come out of it, as opposed to regimes’ tendency to crack down on the means of access.

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