I don't expect Rashad Young to spend a lot of time reading blogs -- he's getting paid to manage the city, not surf the Web. But I do want him to pay attention to what people are talking about, and to avoid sweeping statements that alienate those citizens who use the Web to exchange ideas on local politics.
He could learn something from the respect the Chinese pay to the social media they fear.
My newspaper is about government and the voice of the people, here and there. You can read the whole thing after the jump.
UPDATE: Robbie Perkins, on Facebook: "I believe [Young] will be scanning the blogs in a month or two..."
Rashad Young's firewall
News & Record
Standing in Tiananmen Square, under the gaze of a giant image of Chairman Mao, I found myself thinking about Greensboro's new city manager, Rashad Young.
Young recently told this newspaper that he won't be paying attention to local blogs. "I don't have time for the noise," he said.
The Chinese government doesn't think much of blogs, either. But the authoritarian regime, which understands a thing or two about the tools of power, doesn't dismiss the personal Web sites as Young does -- it fears them.
Social media allow people to organize and share information easily and at low cost. That's scary stuff in a less-than-free society, as Iran's mullahs learned after this summer's disputed elections. China, which has long restricted access to certain Internet sites, cracked down further in anticipation of June's 20th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
Thus, when I checked in at my hotel in Beijing in late October, I discovered that my personal Web log was inaccessible, along with popular sites including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google's Blogger service. All were blocked by the so-called Great Firewall of China (a firewall being software that limits the free flow of data across a network).
No wonder the organizers of the conference at which I'd been invited to speak had demurred when I volunteered to give a version of the talk my daughter, Sydney, refers to as "The Internet, it's kind of a big deal," also known as "social networking for businesses." It's kind of a touchy topic for them.
As it turns out, getting around the Great Firewall is pretty easy, even for a non-adept like me. I was able to access the world beyond China from my laptop computer with a couple of mouse clicks, thanks to software provided by my employer. Most companies use these communications channels, known as virtual private networks, or VPNs, and the Chinese government has relaxed its restrictions on the level of encryption -- that is, information privacy -- allowed for private enterprises. Anyone who works at a Western company in China can probably see whatever they wish to see online.
And despite the limitations the government places on the computers and phones available for sale to local consumers, there are relatively simple ways for Chinese citizens outside of companies to get around the barrier, too. People know what's going on, even if they are circumspect in discussing it.
When I asked about the 1989 events at Tiananmen, my Chinese interlocutor gave a careful answer about students being influenced by some sort of wrong thinking and triggering a vaguely described government crackdown. There followed an artful pause, and then: "This is the official story."
The government could tighten its restrictions without much technical difficulty, but it's hard to imagine Western businesses functioning without secure Internet access, and China really likes having those companies around. Much as the United States owes China so much money that we have leverage over our creditors, China is indebted to Western companies for its economic health. The regime's fondness for data-dependent businesses makes those network connections almost impossible for the post-Communists to break.
I don't want to exaggerate the liberty that exists in China. It is conditional at best, as members of the Falun Gong movement and the Uighur minority, among others, could tell you.
But compared to the recent past, things have changed. When I asked about the political art on display in the hip 798 District, I was told, "The government knows a picture is worth a thousand words. As long as you don't actually say the words, it's OK."
And that brings me back to Tiananmen Square, and to our new city manager. Facing the portrait of Mao, with uniformed soldiers just steps away, a visitor with a Western-issue smartphone held up his screen to display the famous image of tanks advancing on the students.
Here in the United States, we take that kind of freedom for granted. Maybe we should think a little more about it. I don't expect Rashad Young to spend a lot of time reading blogs -- he's getting paid to manage the city, not surf the Web. But I do want him to pay attention to what people are talking about, and to avoid sweeping statements that alienate those citizens who use the Web to exchange ideas on local politics.
He could learn something from the respect the Chinese pay to the social media they fear. On Tuesday, voters spoke plainly about their desire for change in this city. They say all kinds of interesting things.
© News & Record 2009