Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Clash of Civilizations: US vs. China over Google



The following is my observation in my upcoming book: CYBERSPACE GOVERNANCE IN CHINA (N.Y.: Nova Science Publisher, 2011) (June 2011), over the Google incident.

A Call to Arms by the United States

On January 21, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the following foreign policy speech. The speech makes the promotion of free speech and defense of Internet access around the world a 21st Century foreign policy of the United States and a mandate and imperative of her administration. In so doing, Clinton offered up an explicit challenge to the Chinese authority—stop what you are doing to the netizens and Internet, otherwise we will unilaterally liberate the Internet for you.
Some have applauded this bold and visionary “Clinton doctrine.” As many condemned it as “Internet imperialism,” reminiscent of the call for “opium” war, wherein the British forced open China with opium trade and gunboat diplomacy, in the name of free trade.

Considering the tone, texture and content of the Clinton speech, it can best be described as a “call to arms of the United States” against China. In the words of Huntington, “A Clash of Civilizations” is fast developing into a contest over two visions of the virtual world. As Secretary Clinton put it:

The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet…During his visit to China in November, for example, President Obama …spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship… And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights…On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas…our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. …This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship…The Berlin Wall symbolized a world divided, and it defined an entire era. …Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. They’ve expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”…Now, all societies recognize that free expression has its limits. We do not tolerate those who incite others to violence…Now, just as these technologies must not be used to punish peaceful political speech, they must also not be used to persecute or silence religious minorities.….But make no mistake—some are and will continue to use global information networks for darker purposes. Violent extremists, criminal cartels, sexual predators, and authoritarian governments all seek to exploit these global networks… As we work to advance freedoms, we must also work against those who use communication networks as tools of disruption and fear…Now, the principles I’ve outlined today will guide our approach in addressing the issue of Internet freedom and the use of these technologies…We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages and with the training they need to access the Internet safely…Both the American people and nations that censor the Internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote Internet freedom. Now, the United States and China have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship. …Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one Internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors. (Italics provided).

In the above speech, Clinton made clear that United States stands for freedom of speech, while China stands for control of Internet. There is little common ground. The United Sates will do everything and anything to break down the Chinese “firewall,” just as it did with destroying the Berlin Wall in another era. The speech is not only noted for what is being said, i.e., China and the United States do not see eye to eye on the fundamental issue of free speech vs. control of Internet, but for its belligerent tone—bring it on; the United States relishes a good fight with China, and we will win.

Clinton’s speech is “a calls to arms” against China. The “Clash of Civilization” has arrived.

Fundamental Dispute from China

Western human rights advocates claim that free speech and privacy rights are universal and absolute. They can be ascertained in the abstract and as a matter of principle. China adopts a different view. Human rights are relative and particularistic, contingent upon time, place, people, and situation. They can only be actualized in context.

Human right activists and democracy champions from the West talk about the importance of human rights, freedom and democracy as universal and fundamental moral principles. Many people from around the world (including China) have argued that human rights, while important and deserving of our attention, should not remain our exclusive, or even dominant, concern. In our debate over human values, we also need to think about cultural exchange and not simply imposition of one nation/people/culture’s values on other autonomous individuals or sovereign nations.

To start the debate, we need to observe that there are many values worthy of human pursuit, e.g., freedom from starvation, personal integrity, filial piety, social responsibilities and loyalty to one’s country. In this regard, there are four observations to be made. First, it is clear that not all values are created equal. For example, material goods pale alongside moral and spiritual ones. Second, it is also clear that no single value, moral principles included, is so fundamental as to absolutely overshadow others at all times, in all places, and in all situations. Even the taking of innocent human lives can at times be justified in the name of stopping a greater evil. Third, judging values in context goes well beyond merely determining which moral principles should apply in a given decision-making frame. Many valves are involved. Most of them are in conflict, and priorities must be set. The challenge is how to choose and pick given a set of ranked values, national priorities and limited resources. Fourth, the ranking of values in the abstract is so loaded with conditions and disclaimers that such abstractions are of little use when applied to real-life situations. Indeed, they might create problems even in a theoretical multi-value matrix decision-making set. Should I kill one to save the lives of many or possibly to improve the welfare of all? If not, then what right do we have, as a civilized government, to build a highway that, after all, kills? Are the traffic fatalities not victims of a government’s conscious policy choice, to develop highways instead of airports? Do we not call them casualties of human progress? The complexities and difficulties in arriving at agreed values are best described thusly:

Second: there is no shared set of value priorities. We make much of the fact that we share values and we frequently say that, well, basically humans want the same things so we ought to be able to work things out. Perhaps, at a survival level, but beyond that, and even there, there is not a shared set of priorities with regard to values. Instead, priorities change with circumstance, time, and group. Here are some examples where value priorities differ depending on the group and circumstance. Short-term expedience versus long-term prudent behavior and vice versa. Group identity versus individual identity. Individual responsibility versus societal responsibility. Freedom versus equality. Local claims versus larger claims for commitment. Universal rights versus local rights (that can repudiate universal rights; fundamentalisms, for example.) Human rights versus national interests (e.g., economic competition or nationalist terrorism). Public interest versus privacy (the encryption conflict, health information, whether private or not). First amendment limits (pornography, etc.). Seeking new knowledge and its potential benefits versus. its potential costs. Who sets the rules of the game and who decides? These are all issues where the priority of values is in contention. There is no reliable set of priorities in place that can be used to choose decisively among actions toward the larger issues.

The above are not arguments for value relativity, nor propositions for situational ethics. It is a proposition for value pluralism. Value pluralism simply means that there are many more human values that give meaning to life and happiness to people than the principles of justice, freedom, equality and democracy. Put in another way, a country can hold other enduring values—love for family, loyalty to friends, duty to society—and still deserve our admiration and respect. A benevolent dictator is better to many than starvation and chaos.

Human rights advocates argue that human rights are so fundamental that all other values pale in comparison. While this argument has surface appeal and is emotionally satisfying, a moment of critical reflection shows that this does not conform to our understanding of how human values are formed, adopted, and evolved. First, human rights advocates deem it “self-evident” that human rights—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness —are fundamental in nature, universal in application, and apparent to all. All human beings should and must subscribe to the same set of human rights values—in content, importance, and, when compared with other values, priority. There are no exceptions or deviations. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human values, as with beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder. Likewise, there are many ways to discover human values; as many as there are individuals on this earth.

On a theoretical plane, Kant’s categorical imperatives or Bentham’s utilitarianism are good starting points in order for one to discover individual or social values, but these are not final. Ontological and teleological validations of value choices are not exhaustive.

In more practical terms, rational analysis and positive thinking are not the only, nor even the best, tools to determine the content, contour and correctness of human values. Indeed, I venture to guess rational analysis is ill suited to the investigation of value matters that are, after all, more instinctual than cognitive, and more emotive than logical. We love humanity with our heart, and appreciate life with our soul, not with a computer and a brain. In the end, spiritual enlightenment, personal feelings, human experience and collective wisdom can all play a part in one’s endless value search.

In addition, human rights belong to each and every individual and are not monopolized by one ideological camp. Most certainly, values, of which human rights are an integral part, are not beholden to the intellectually bright, militarily strong, economically wealthy or culturally rich. As nations, as communities, as families, and as individuals, we all subscribe to a set of values. Each of us is equally capable of finding a set of values suited to our taste. All of us are equally endowed as moral agents. It is apparent that no one country—no matter how big, how strong, how rich, and how enlightened—can monopolize the creation of desirable values, much less be the net exporter of virtues.

With regard to national values: as with one’s moral compass, national values do not come prepackaged. They are a combined and integrated product of personal make-up, cultural heritage, social consensus, economic circumstances, and even accidental events. In other words, values are a sum total of human existence: wants, needs, phobia, remembrance, dreams, and hopes. Once formed, they are a given fact of personality - nationhood and are seldom right or wrong in the abstract or in totality.
Fourth, values are formed experientially, experimentally, naturally, and incrementally, more so than cognitively, absolutely, positively and dramatically. Historical accidents and national happenstance have as much to do with a country’s value formation as do rational discourse and reflective policy. Much of the values Americans take for granted are rooted in the manner by which the United States found liberation, independence, and individuality as a result of rebellion against British rule. Conversely, the Chinese people have sought refuge in paternalism and collectivity because historically they have embraced the teachings of Confucius.
Given this “dynamic” and “dialectical” process of human value formation, it should come as no surprise to anyone to learn that human values never stop growing and evolving, changing in content and mix every minute and hour of the day. “We get wiser as we grow older” is as much a descriptive statement as it is an admonition to the young who are eager to live all that life has to offer in one day. Viewed in this light, the search for human values is not a discovery process but a creative journey. An individual, a people, a community, a nation-state—all are searching for an elusive and transient identity, but never arrive at an ultimate destiny. It is the process of searching for, and not the ultimate finding of, human values, which gives meaning to life.

Lastly and most significantly, values are bound by time and space and posited within certain places and societies. Two very important observations flow from this postulate. First, values exist within a context of history, place, people, society, and culture. There is no non-historical, non-social or non-cultural value. To appreciate why Chinese rulers, and, for that matter, many Asian leaders, adopt a paternalistic attitude towards their subjects, it is necessary to consider the importance and structure of the family within Chinese history and culture. A critique of the Chinese style of government is not just an attack on Chinese current leaders but also an indictment against China’s cultural heritage in general, and the role and functions of family in particular. With so much at stake, and such complexities involved, a country passing judgment on others should be more reflective, thoughtful and considerate. It is easy to be misinformed and to misjudge.

Second, values are bundled goods. The meaning and importance of a value cannot be easily extracted from the collective of values of which it forms an integral part. The surgical removal and strategic implantation of values will certainly cause political disruption, such as the wholesale abandonment of communism in U.S.S.R., which led to social unrest and political chaos, and social rejection, such as the ban on U.S.-style adversarial journalism in Singapore.

It is most difficult, if not impossible, for a person or country to transcend its intellectual horizon and value space. Cultural myopia is the norm. China calls herself “Central Kingdom” and still acts that way. Intellectual provincialism is the rule. All rationality is bounded.

Marx’s critique of the capitalistic intellectual order, that the consciousness of the mass is conditioned, controlled and dominated by ideas emulating from the economic base, is flawed, less so because it is an overbroad observation than because it is not carried far enough. Marx failed to explain convincingly why he could liberate himself from such an all-embracing ideological confine to lead the charge against capitalism, while others could not. Rawls’ Theory of Justice suffered from a similar cultural straight jacket: the just society behind “the veil of ignorance” envisioned by Rawl looked more like twentieth-century Boston than traditional Indonesia or contemporary Japan.

Is it surprising to see first the Romans, then the British and now the Americans preaching the virtues of their culture to the rest of the world; through persuasion if possible (BBC, VOA, CNN) and by force (extra-territoriality, Vietnam, Iraq) if necessary? Echoing Huntington, does it not appear odd that it takes the British a few hundred years to discover the essence of civilization while the Egyptians are still at a loss after 6,000 years? Is it possible that the Americans find the best in government in 200 years while the Chinese keep missing them after 4,000 years?
The discovery of universal values has more to do with individual ego and national pride than any intrinsic merit associated with those values. The successful spread of values, from democracy to gay rights, reflects more upon a country’s economic strength and concomitant cultural domination than on any inherent appeal and demonstrated goodness of certain moral principles.

Cultural domination, albeit in subtle form, is here to stay. Singapore’s senior statesman was right when he said that Asian values are as worthy of respect—because those values tell Asians who they are.

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