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HD China: A Gradual Change?

April 13, 2011

青年. qīngnián. youth.

[readers note: this post is part of a series. To read earlier versions, or get some background, please see: what is HD Chinaintroemergence of the webinternational law, liu xiaobopeoples activism]

A Gradual Change?

So if the Internet, in the words of Liu Xiaobo is “Gods gift to China”, is this what God envisioned? Who is responsible for these alleged human rights violations that have taken place, and that are taking place now? And how to bring these individuals to justice? Does international law have any role at all?

Are not the right to life, physical integrity and prohibition of torture norms with the status of jus cogens?

The Internet has created a dynamic medium for self-expression within a country that given only traditional means of expression (magazines, newspapers, television), which existed during the decades of NWICO, would have been impossible. This new form of connectivity has created and mobilized a subculture of individuals—and within that hundreds and possibly thousands of other subcultures.

A 2010 report found that young Chinese (14-27 years old) spend an average of 34 hours each week using real-time communications and social media/networking tools (almost triple the average of the other 12 countries profiled in the report). The type of web-activity that the report surveyed demonstrates the countries obsessive online video game habits (14 hours/week) to enthusiasm for personal blogging and online shopping. One doesn’t have to venture far and wide in China’s cities to find public spaces that are dedicated for “millennials” and “netizens” who swarm in large numbers after school paying 5 rmb/hour to access this digital universe.

This phenomena seems relentless—and in this light, censorship efforts almost seems futile. It’s like trying to erect a Great stone Wall around a digital world of skyscrapers—where residents own time portals powered and limited only by their own intellectual resources.

Still, freedom for Chinese netizens to navigate through the digital universe as boundlessly as their counterparts is not the current reality. Sure, this basic right to taking ownership of your own information “time portal” is not denied, but there are rules, there are limits. There are apparent DEAD ENDs, DO NOT ENTER and AT YOUR OWN RISK signs along the digital highways. There is a real psychological fear and degree of control that manifests a perception of being watched, of being targeted. There are censor police populated strategically along the digital highways, following packets of information as they transport from one place to another—taking notes, monitoring, and enforcing.

But there are new digital highways, roads and paths of expression and thought being constructed each and every day. There are digital tunnels and bridges being built to connect this network, and concurrently elevating the conscience of a nation. Even the policing censors are not naive to the unyielding nature of this progress. Perhaps one day they will even join in developing the infrastructure.

International law recognizes that no Government has the right to hide behind national sovereignty in order to violate the human rights or fundamental freedoms of its peoples. These brief examples of alleged human right violations vary in degree with the use of the Internet as a medium for expression. Many of the examples above are also concerned, in one way or another with social commentary or perspectives that challenge the current conduct and order of a government. The claims range from those that are the perceived as the most politically sensitive, like Liu Xiaobo’s Charter ’08, to basic restrictions on web-access because of censorship and firewalls, such as the freedom to enjoy a global social network that connects people around the world.

This regulation of the flow of information across transnational barriers was addressed during the 20th century. And although the arduous efforts of UNESCO and the MacBride commission to achieve a New World Information and Communication Order did not prevail, it still provides a notable amount of substantive value.

This declaration to protect and promote freedom of expression was present at the first session of the General Assembly in 1946 where it characterized freedom of information as “a fundamental human right” and “the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.”  This explicit commitment by UNESCO provided a norm-setting function in the international arena that echoes today from within the sovereignty of a nation.

In 1948 the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declared the right for freedom of opinion and expression for everyone includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

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