Democracy Leaking Into China

A woman browses the Internet in Beijing.
I'm Barry Petersen, and this Letter From Asia comes from Beijing.

I had a chat the other day with an old friend and former CBS-colleague, Peter Herford. At CBS he pretty much did it all, working as a producer for the likes of 60 Minutes and The CBS Evening News. And for the last three years has been teaching journalism in, of all places, southern China.

We started by talking about China's leaders our to control the Internet. I asked Peter what kind of a job has the government cut out for themselves, and is it going to work?

"In the end it's an impossible job," says Herford. "It's a wonderful story of schizophrenia. On the one hand the Chinese government looks at the internet as this fabulous means of communication. That they want to make available to everybody in the country."

Indeed, China has phone numbers for free dial up internet access. Anyone can enjoy. But it also has leaders who are not so happy with the freedom that comes with the web.

"So it's a little bit like the story of holes in the dike and the little kid with his fingers in it and…forget it. [There is] No way in the end," explains Herford.

"Now the Internet is so ubiquitous that anything that happened in China is going to appear on the internet, usually within minutes. The end result is the foreign press knows about it rather rapidly by monitoring the blogs they know will produce information."

What surprised us were Peter's thoughts about his journalism students.

"They understand that if they go to work for a Chinese publication that is owned by the government, they will live by a different set of rules," says Herford. "But they also all have the feeling, that's not going to go on forever. At some point the walls will start crumbling down and they're going to be able to do what you do all the time."

And maybe this question isn't about journalism… but Peter has seen the same thing we have, the rapid rise of a Chinese middle class. At the moment, it's all about money.

Is he seeing any real hunger by the Chinese to have a democracy?

"No not yet…not yet. Is that a year away, five years again, ten years away? I can't tell you, except every other change I've seen in China comes much sooner than you expect it. So, it may be around the corner."

Peter makes a good point. You are wise not to predict what comes next in this fast-moving country. It is so often what you least expect.

By Barry Petersen