Losing The Information War

People in Beijing using computers. CBS

I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter from Asia comes from Beijing. You sometimes get the feeling here that there are two Chinas; the one with the booming economy and the one with the Communist government trying to get back to the old days when it reigned supreme.

That seems the reason that China's leaders want yet another crackdown on the press. It would ban reporting on emergencies unless the stories are authorized by local officials.

Officials insist their efforts are all about making sure the stories are accurate before details are released.

But Peter Herford, a former CBS News producer who now teaches journalism at a China university, sees it for what it is, a way for China's leaders to kill stories about things like anti-government protests.

"They know they're losing control mainly because of the internet," Herford says. "And that worries them because they don't have a large answer for that very large question. They have an answer to individual things, some disaster comes along, does get reported, they can handle that but if it's the overall question of how the press operates in an increasingly open atmosphere, that's something they don't have a counter for."

But the government is up against a force of its own making, the 100 million Chinese now on the internet in part because the government makes internet access free to all. And add in cell-phones for talking AND for sending text messages.

"You've got the internet which is increasingly in use, every day, every hour in China and it means that the Chinese tell each other stories and move information whether its personal or political, it doesn't make any difference," explains Herford. "There's a tremendous volume of cell phone short message traffic that's going back and forth. 400 million users currently being added to it the rate of millions every month and the Chinese use that text messaging service back and forth the way most Americans think of as email."

But there is one other thing at play here: a slice of Chinese culture.

"Well, the Chinese culture, very different than our own is based on shame," says Herford. "That is: the worst thing you can do to a Chinese, and most people around the world know this, is to lose face. What that really means is that no matter what happens, when bad things happen, they should be treated privately; they should not be treated openly and in public because shame is the worst thing that can happen to you. In that sense, the government is very much apart of that system and they look on that and say: if we are shamed in public, it means that we are not doing our job."

How will it end? Badly for the hard liners who want the press crackdown. Sure, they can intimidate and control the main stream media. But they are losing the information war. They cannot control the internet, cannot outrun resourceful users constantly finding new ways to share information.

Mao said that power comes from the barrel of a gun. His successors are learning, the hard way, that these days a bullet may be no match for a mouse.
by Barry Petersen

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