My Chinese wife and I shared Thanksgiving dinner with several Chinese American families who live in the area. Most are naturalized American citizens and have teenage children born here. Nearly all are university professors or medical doctors.
We first came to know of this group because one of the people in the group is from the same hometown in northeastern China as my wife. They had never met, of course, and there is no relationship or acquaintance between their families. A common hometown, however, is enough to create an automatic social obligation in Chinese culture. You are almost family; particularly when that hometown is relatively small by Chinese standards (About 3 million residents as of the 2010 census.), and you both find yourselves in a foreign land 7,000 miles away.
This was not our first dinner with the group and I always enjoy them. They all speak fluent English, of course, although Mandarin is the language of choice for most of the evening. It is a warm and gracious group of people and all seem to share some self-imposed sense of responsibility to insure that the one foreigner in the group—me—is having a good time and not feeling left out.
It is a very light-drinking crowd although baijiu was brought out to allow everyone the chance to toast the health and prosperity of their friends, as is their custom. The bottle was capped and put away, however, after a mere quarter of a liter was consumed with the formalities of friendship.
There is zero interest in American football among the group, including the teenagers, and most of the evening is spent in small group discussions over tea, with a few of the men breaking off for karaoke and a few traditional Chinese ballads.
To a person, all of them feel blessed to be in America and to have the chance to raise their children here. None among them have any interest in leaving although all have family in China and stay in touch with all things Chinese.
The topics of discussion were and weren’t what I expected. There was, as I expected, some talk about Yingying ZHANG, the 26 year-old Chinese scholar who disappeared from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus on June 9 of this year. A local Caucasian man has been arrested and charged with kidnapping but has never admitted guilt and the whereabouts of Zhang or her body remains unknown.
Beyond the obvious fact that there is a human life involved, this is big deal for all Americans. There are roughly 900,000 foreign students studying at America’s universities today, and about one-third of those are Chinese. The Chinese student population in the US, in other words, is about the same as the entire population of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the monetary infusion into the US economy easily exceeds $10 billion per year. If those students, or their parents, collectively decide to stay home or go elsewhere out of fear that the American government will not or cannot protect them, the impact on our education system, our economy, and the educational opportunities available to our own children will be enormous.
What seems to perplex the Chinese about this case is not that one of their own came to harm. The Chinese know full well how dangerous life can be. It is that the police have not been able to solve the case and the man accused has yet to go on trial, now almost six months later.
Wherever you come down on the scale of personal rights, from libertarian to collectivism, the one job every government has above all else is to keep us safe and to punish those who violate the precept. And there is little doubt in most Chinese minds, or mine, that if an American student had disappeared in China, the case would have been solved long ago and the guilty punished, probably by immediate execution.
According to NationMaster.com, a global community of statisticians that The New York Times calls “astounding,” and the BBC refers to as “a statistician’s dream,” violent crime and murder occur at a rate 18 and 4 times higher, respectively, in the US than in China.
This, of course, is part of a larger discussion on the perceived trade-off between individual rights and freedoms and a strong government looking to protect collective stability and safety. The Western media, of course, has long treated the issue as a zero sum game in which government strength can only come at the expense of individual liberty. And both are inevitably measured, of course, by the freedom of the press. It is, however, a specious argument.
I have yet to meet the Chinese person that believes China should adopt the American political system. To a person they don’t believe it would work in China, not only because of the size and diversity of their country, but because it clearly doesn’t work here in the US. The 2016 election and subsequent events have only reinforced the conviction, although I don’t think a different electoral outcome would have had any impact on the observation of dysfunction.
On a related but very different aspect of strong government control, however, the part of the conversation that did surprise me related to the Internet.
The Chinese have long been chided by American media for the strict government control of the Chinese Internet. The Western media detests nothing quite so ardently as it does any attempt to make it responsible for what it reports.
In addition to controlling the use of social media for voicing political dissent and promoting social unrest, China has already taken strong steps to prevent digital anonymity, personal shaming, revenge porn, and the malicious spreading of rumors, gossip, and unsubstantiated accusations. (They do this, in part, they claim, by blocking access to Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have traditionally refused to allow any government regulation of their platforms.)
Porn, which some estimates suggest accounts for as much as 30% of all Internet traffic in the US, is strictly forbidden and censored in China. Identity theft carries severe penalties and the government actively protects its citizens against malware and Internet schemes that prey on the elderly.
It was noted over tea, however, that Americans may now be realizing that strong government regulation may not be so dystopian after all. Beyond the constant threat of identity theft, ransomware, religious radicalization, adolescent bullying, and attempts by Russian operatives to influence American politics, it has become increasingly clear that the very structure of the American Internet is dividing us and enflaming our distrust and animosity through self-reinforcing media feeds, biased reporting, and outright fake news.
In our case, however, it is not the government that is controlling the information that divides and enflames; it is the oligopoly of Internet giants that government regulators have allowed to achieve such enormous scale and unfettered power that their ability to influence public opinion now dwarfs the control of government censors in China, Russia, or elsewhere.
The only difference between China and the US in terms of digital censorship is that in China it is the government that yields the control and in the US it is the corporate states of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, among others. Whether or not the Communist Party makes good on its commitment to sound governance, we know by their own admission and behavior that the Silicon Valley elite is driven by the insatiable drive for profit and personal wealth. Perhaps even more dangerous and minatory is the fact that in China, at least, the censorship is transparent. In Silicon Valley it is anything but.
It is doubtful, in fact, that even the engineers at companies like Google and Facebook have any idea how their algorithms actually work. How does anyone really know if their unfathomably complex algorithms aren’t themselves fanning the fires of racism and misogyny, for example, in the interest of getting more users to click on more advertisements?
Certainly no one would suggest that they are doing so intentionally, but who is to say what is really happening in the bowels of their server farms that they can only understand by processing test data and assessing the output against “rational” expectations, whatever those may be. Proxy causation, by definition, would be almost impossible to detect.
All of which might pose minimum risk if the US government regulated their activities and limited their scale and market dominance in the same way they regulate virtually every other industry. But they don’t. And one doesn’t have to think hard to come up with possible explanations.
Government dystopia comes in many shades and flavors. Nearly all, however, rely on controlling the flow of information. And whether that flow is controlled by an autocratic government or a free market oligopoly with little to no oversight, matters little. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
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