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Cable: The Reaction Inside China to Clinton's "Internet Freedom" Speech

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, December 8 2010

One Wikileaks released document seems to have slipped under the radar thus far, a cable titled "Secretary Clinton's Internet Freedom Speech: China Reaction." (The document, tagged #10BEIJING183, is marked with a date stamp indicating a Saturday release, but an automatic alert filed with Cablesearch just popped up the cable this afternoon.)

The State Department cable from the U.S. embassy in Beijing reports on reaction inside China to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's major speech in January in which she said that a free and unfettered Internet is "part of our national brand." On the main, the cable finds Chinese officials feeling targeted by and angry with the speech, with a hardening of reaction as you move up the chain of command. Bloggers, at least the ones who were able to listen to or read the address, were supportive. But what also jumps out is a worry amongst some observers that the speech, interpreted in some corners as reflective of American imperialism, would harden what had been a somewhat soft and fluid context where Chinese officials held onto the notion that they were the keepers of the Internet and everyone else mostly ignored them:

[A source with knowledge of internal Chinese governmental affairs, including with the Politburo Standing Committee] warned that there were people in China and other countries such as Iran who might see the "shadow of color revolution" in recent USG policies promoting Internet freedom and 21st century e-diplomacy. For example, Iranians might perceive Washington's new initiatives on Internet freedom or the advocacy of new technologies such as Twitter to be "aggressive" or harboring ulterior motives, such as promoting regime change, said [the source].

The source reportedly went on to say that Chinese "netizens" already know how to work around China's so-called "Great Firewall," but that:

He feared...that if the USG provided free software that helped Chinese netizens overcome filters, this might politicize the issue of Internet freedom and force the PRC government to react. One possible consequence, warned [the source] was that China might make it illegal to download either U.S.-provided or commercially available software that helped Internet surfers circumvent the Great Firewall.

Elsewhere in the cable, an academic observer inside China is recorded as worrying that Secretary Clinton's speech would add weight to Chinese officials' arguments, made to their own people, that an open Internet was a conduit for the U.S.'s nationalistic intent:

[H]e had been "disappointed and depressed" when he read the Secretary's speech. "Those who tried to control the Internet more in China never had much support before," he said. "Most people believe information should be open, and the Internet should be open. The conservative, security people were the minority and many people just laughed at them." The Secretary's speech, however, gave great new energy to the "controllers" who could now plausibly argue that the United States was explicitly using the Internet as a tool for regime change. "The Internet belongs to every country," he complained; "we all can go there, we all can add to it, we all can learn from it. We Chinese were free there. Now the United States has claimed it for itself and so it will become an ideological battlefield."

Here's the full text of Secretary Clinton's January speech on "Internet freedom," delivered at Washington DC's Newseum, and here's our coverage at the time which described her address as a "full-throated defense of the potential of a fully networked society and fully networked world."

(With Nick Judd)