Top Down is Upside Down: #Tunisia #Egypt

“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

-Princess Leia

You gotta love when Internet technologies go radical. Two weeks ago, we saw Tunisians turning to social media to coordinate their successful overthrow of their president. And now, in Egypt, Twitter and Facebook are so threatening to the regime there, that those services have been shutdown as Egyptians demonstrate in the street.

Of course, there are no guarantees that these technologies will win the day for democracy. Such was the case in Iran a couple years ago. You may recall that these technologies initially caught the government by surprise. You could almost hear the questions among the mullahs: “Twitter? Is that a domestic organization?” But they learned quickly enough and that was the end (for now) of Iran’s brush with political reform.

But, these web technologies are powerful, disruptive tools, and one wonders at what point they will bring down the Big Kahuna of despotic regimes: the Communist Party of China. Despite all the fear and loathing these days about the emerging communist-cum-capitalist giant displacing the US, China is a ticking bomb and I doubt their ascendence wont see a significant hiccup soon. I know, because I’ve been there and people are none too pleased with Beijing. In fact, from what I saw, the farther from Beijing you go, the less happy people are with Beijing.

8%+ economic growth has so far delayed the inevitable, but the level of rampant corruption in China is widely recognized and despised by the Chinese public. They just won’t easily admit this in front of foreigners, but if you listen carefully to what they say, you’ll hear it.

Back in 2001, the last time I was in China, most Western media were not accessible through the Internet. I was actually in a muslim region of western China on 9/11, in an Internet cafe, forced to use a back-channel method for getting around the censors. That’s when I saw the news just moments after the terrorist attacks in New York. Of course, nobody around me knew anything about it. And they wouldn’t for almost 48 hours.

Things have opened up since in major ways, but Facebook and Twitter are not allowed in China. And we all know the story of how Google decided to shut its Chinese search engine. But here’s the rub. The Chinese are spreading out around the world as students, travelers and business people and getting very comfortable with these tools, and then they go home and are faced with the censorship issue head on. So, increasingly, they are becoming very intimately aware of their government’s authoritarianism. And learning how to circumvent it.

You do have to wonder when tensions do flare in China, how will the public react to their government when it starts pulling down popular social networks used widely by Chinese students and businesses. From my experience, the Chinese have very high expectations for how their government is supposed to respect the will of the People. That is, they take the name People’s Republic to heart. In fact, whenever you have local disturbances in localities involving corrupt local officials and, say, polluting industries, the people often expect Beijing to step in and do right by them. No matter that Beijing often responds by taking a hard line against activists. But the expectation is still there.

Anyway, that inevitable moment when the government lets The People down (like they did in 1989), will be very telling, and may have a much different outcome now that communication is so fundamental and so decentralized.

Anyway, here’s three cheers to Tunisians and high hopes for Egypt!

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