Home > Politics > The Triumph of the Geeks

The Triumph of the Geeks

Apart from pandas giving birth (or at the very least, two pandas looking at each with a twinkle in their eye), there’s not much else from China that will grab the front pages like a presidential visit.  The trouble is that while there are was a lot of style, there wasn’t much in the way of substance.   Unless you count 6 hours on The Great Wall and taking photos of the The Forbidden City, that is.

But all that was to be expected.  As Gady Epstein pointed out on his Twitter feed, Obama wasn’t about to step on Chinese toes on their home turf. Beyond the “town hall meeting” in Shanghai (essentially a televised English Corner), there was nothing much else for the President to do.  A press conference turned into a press meeting, with no questions allowed, and public appearances were kept to an absolute minimum.  Previous presidents had pushed for changes in the law with regards to human rights (Clinton) and had even accused the country’s leadership of currency manipulation (guess who).  Barack Obama, at least officially, seemed to be in Beijing for what everyone else is officially here to do – enjoy the culture and the history.  In fact, given the lack of any decent TV coverage, the cancellation of press conferences, and all the rest of it, you wouldn’t be overly shocked to be told that not many Chinese knew that he was in town at all, let along talked to students in a university somewhere.

What was interesting was that the meeting was broadcast on the Internet by the White House tech staff themselves and – get this – the feed is unblocked on the mainland and it was accompanied by a live word-for-word translation of the whole thing.  In Chinese.  Anyone with an internet connection (which is a lot of anyones in China) could log onto the White House and see a Chinese students discussing Internet censorship by the Chinese Communist Party, and then see what the world’s most powerful man had to say about it.  It’s one way of staying ahead of the game – the blocking of the White House website could be seen as a diplomatic slight, so whatever was on it, within reason, would be pretty much available to all and sundry in China.  Whoever thought of the idea of adding a Chinese translation is either a devious prankster, or a certified genius.  It’s odd the way that those two often crossover.

It’s about this point in the article that you’ll understand from my gushing that I’m a geek.  A nerd.  I’ve got a blog and more than one email address, you don’t really need much more than that, do you? While most people were gearing up to make themselves ready for Windows 2000, I was wrestling with my first command line on SuSE Linux 6.2.  I worked my way through several Linux distros, including SuSE, Mandrake (now Mandriva), Red Hat and finally Ubuntu – Windows finally matured into something that I could use satisfactorily and I’m currently running Vista Ultimate.  I had a website, a couple, in fact, both had a couple of visitors a month if I was lucky, and I was a lurking member of Slashdot long before it was made the owners of that blog into millionaires.  It’s not unsurprising to learn that most of my angst was directed at the Great Firewall.  Now, it seems, I’m not alone in casting aspersions on this monstrosity, as Barack Obama was quizzed on whether people should be allowed to access social networking sites like Twitter this week in Shanghai – the questions about Internet censorship were asked by handpicked members of the Chinese Communist Youth League.

Censorship and the Great Firewall are my personal bugbears when it comes to talking politics in China.  The specific beef that I have with the Internet censorship in China is that it doesn’t work.  At least half my friends who live in the Chinese mainland are able to post messages of Facebook, and I’m still able to see Tweets from the various journos and commentators that I follow on Twitter.  The Great Firewall of China doesn’t work, and it’s costing the Chinese people around $300 million a year to keep going.   That’s $300 million that could be spent on giving people a new hospital or rebuilding a decent school in Sichuan.  Another wild idea would be that that money could be used to actually make people happy rather than make them repressed – it would surely cut down on the monthly tally of protests that turn violent in China.  The Uyghurs would be a little bit happier if they got a bit extra money here and there, and the Tibetans might even welcome the odd donation to keep a remote temple open.  But that kind of thing just doesn’t wash with the Chinese Communists.

The odd thing is that while I’m doing my best to be a do-gooding, interfering busybody who, the Chinese are just getting on with it, and even though they aren’t living in the US, they are finding ways and means of getting the work done.  How about we look at education?  Surely a communist developing country can’t have a better education system than say, Japan or the UK, or the US?

The fact of the matter is that more Chinese students than ever are enrolling and foreign universities – the pool of intellect in China in the next five years will be astonishing.  The old system of having your degree chosen for you is long gone, students are free to choose what they want to study.  Because they are interested in the subject, they study harder and get better degrees, and the whole thing sets a virtuous circle into motion.  Overseas Chinese students numbered an impressive 98, 510 last year, which is a whopping 21% increase on previous years (India still leads, but not by much, with 103,260 overseas students).  60% of all US universities surveyed in the autumn reported an increase in the number of Chinese students they enrolled.

Essentially what is happening is this: because of the one-child policy, children in China are now taking advantage of the best educations in the world while they’re waiting for their own home-grown institutions to mature.  They’re not just saying “we’re going to have great universities”, they’re saying “we’re going to have great universities, and while we’re waiting for them, we are sending our kids to great universities.”  The Chinese are essentially outsourcing their students to the US.  The fashion for an American education is such that a book has just been published by three Chinese undergrads studying in the US.  Called “A True Liberal Arts Education”, it describes life at a small liberal arts college, and the concepts of liberal arts.

People are absolutely right when they say that censored version of Google or Yahoo is better than no Google or Yahoo at all – having the tools that organize and make sense of the Internet are vital.  What comes with the ability to sort through information effectively is that ability to compare your circumstances with those others have in other countries.  Even if the students were handpicked and even if the whole thing was stage-managed, as one Chinese Twitter user commented, for a brief moment in China, people were able to discuss the problems of censorship and one-party rule, and these are subjects that could only really be discussed with a foreign leader.

When it comes to letting the Chinese in on the secret that if they had a more open Internet, they’d be able to make more money is something that they’re going to have to figure out for themselves.  The last time that the Chinese were running full tilt boogie, they came up with the compass, the printing press and gunpowder, who knows what they’ll do when they finally get the genie out of the bottle.

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