Rebecca MacKinnon, formerly CNN’s Beijing bureau chief and now Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong, writes an open letter to President Barack Obama in the Huffington Post, In Talking to China, Remember its People. She encourages the president to adopt a more nuanced view of the Chinese citizenry:
The point is that while these people are not citizens of a democracy, they are by no means an undifferentiated mass of brainwashed drones. Despite often crude censorship of the Internet and state-run media, despite manipulation, intimidation of dissidents and political astro-turfing of the blogosphere by paid commentators, there is no unity of thought in China today. Civic minded citizens manage to hold wide-ranging debates on the Chinese Internet, in living rooms, dormitories, office break rooms, and classrooms about many public issues. Reading the Chinese blogs I’ve found all kinds of views about you and your new administration. Many are inspired by your personal story and the idea of truly equal opportunity that you represent. Others hope that you will be more forthright and principled on human rights issues than the Bush administration was. Others are very concerned that you will be protectionist in order to help the American people in the short run, and that this will hurt the Chinese people economically. Others lament cynically that no matter what happens, the rich and powerful in both countries will be the relationship’s main beneficiaries.
She also recommends that the president harness the power of the Internet to engage the Chinese public:
Just as you have used new technology to engage with the American electorate, your China policy can be greatly strengthened if you conduct a real conversation with the Chinese people. Listen as much as you talk; provide a much-needed platform for open discussion. The U.S. embassy in Beijing should build a Chinese-language website modeled after change.gov, focused not just on U.S.-China relations, but on the range of concerns and interests – from environment, to food safety, to factory safety standards, to education and real estate law — shared by ordinary Chinese and Americans. Some linguistically talented State Department employees should start blogging in Chinese. Open up the comments sections, see how the Chinese blogosphere responds, then respond to them in turn. Translate some of the Chinese conversation into English for Americans to read and react, then translate it back. Sure there will be censorship problems on the Chinese side, but if enough Chinese find the conversation important and relevant to their lives, the censors ultimately won’t be able to stop it. Nor should they want to if they’re wise – because the resulting conversation would help both governments build a more stable and rational relationship that would truly benefit the people of both countries.