Digital Walls, Digital Holes

Details of the conversation between Bill Gates and Chinese Premier Hu Jintao when they met recently at the Microsoft campus near Seattle, and afterward at a $20,000-per-plate dinner at Gates' Lake Washington compound, are somewhat scarce. A new deal between Microsoft and Chinese computer-maker Lenovo to pre-load Windows on the company's Chinese-made machines probably was eagerly discussed. It is less likely that Hu and Gates were eager to talk about the Chinese government's Internet censorship and control policies. In recent debates about that issue -- in international human rights circles, in the national media and even in the halls of Congress -- both men have been portrayed as villains.

Indeed, the Chinese Internet censorship story owes much of its national prominence to the growing realization that American Internet companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco are enabling China's censorship regime. The moral and practical dilemma about whether technological engagement or a principled embargo is the better way for U.S. companies to affect change in China has rightly been the subject of much debate, though the correct solution to that dilemma is not immediately obvious. More readily apparent is the logic of the Chinese government's censorship efforts. In a delicate balancing act between economic liberalization and the maintenance of political authority, China's leaders want to harness the Internet's potential as a propaganda tool and as a contributor to economic growth -- the bedrock of their tenuous legitimacy -- while suppressing the Web's use as a tool of political activism and truth-telling.

In the midst of this recent attention, however, the most important question about China's censorship of the Internet has not received its due consideration: Will the Chinese regime achieve its goals? Can it cleanse the Internet of undesirable information and thus shield its people from the influence of subversive truths?

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