Technology and Political Openness

Technology’s impact on xenocratization is likely to be more immediate, although not sufficient in itself to effect political change. Weak economies, along with government resistance, have contained the spread of technology in many Middle Eastern and some Asian states and will for the near future. But technology’s advent has added a new dimension to the prospects for political change.

Technology and Political Openness

The most dramatic episodes of popular resistance against authoritarian regimes in the past decade have featured prominent roles for technology. In Tiananmen Square in 1989, Chinese demonstrators communicated with one another and the outside world by fax. In Bangkok in 1992, Thai professionals, dubbed “mobile phone mobs,” coordinated antimilitary demonstrations with student leaders and one another by cellular phone. In Indonesia in 1998, anti-Suharto resistance was largely directed via the Internet.

But for all these moments of high political drama, technology’s greatest promise in promoting political openness lies in the everyday intercourse of civil and political life. In authoritarian societies, the Internet differs from print and electronic media, because no government-dominated media exist for the regime to use as a counterweight. From its inception, the Internet has been a freer form of communication than any other, at least for those able to obtain it.

Modernizing authoritarian states often wish to expand the use of technology for economic development but also to keep citizens from using it for political purposes. Doing both, however, is increasingly difficult. China’s ambitious plan to build a national computerized information infrastructure has spurred domestic telecommunications industry growth of 30-50 percent a year since 1989. At the same time the government registers all Internet users, is investing in technology to monitor and filter cyber communications, and regulates acceptable topics for online discussion. But Chinese Internet users have learned how to circumvent many of these restrictions using proxy servers, a sign that technology can usually outmaneuver attempts to control it.

Today China’s 17 million Internet users are a small fraction of the nation’s population. But their number is increasing rapidly, growing 75 percent from 1997 to 1998 and then tripling in 1999. More important, political discourse in China has expanded despite state attempts to censor and prevent it. In the medium run, the effects of government efforts to control the Internet will depend in part on whether China can maintain brisk economic growth. If it does, Internet growth is likely to overwhelm attempts to control it. In the long run, the prognosis is favorable. In countries where technology is growing, control of global media may alternate between government and society, but the advantage will usually go to society in the end.