A Patent Omission

Soviet Buran (left) and US space shuttle (right)

A recent story by the Planet Money team at NPR posed the question: what would happen to business and innovation if there were no patents?

For those who don’t follow the rise and flow of intellectual property law, this has been a trendy subject in recent years. Driven in large part by the complex — and aggressive — litigation between Apple, Google and Samsung over smart phone and software design, many smart people have posited that instead of protecting intellectual property and innovation in market economies, patents and other intellectual property protections have built fortresses around technology and impeded both creativity and economic growth.

There’s certainly an argument to be made for intellectual property reform. (For example, there’s a strange coincidence that copyright protections keep getting extended every time Mickey Mouse stands on the verge of entering the public domain.) But the Planet Money team skips that argument, probably because it would put to sleep their listeners, already bored by their overlong story of 15 minutes. Instead, they pose the much bigger question about no patents at all.

Patents are issued on machines and processes (trademarks and copyrights are on brand designs and creative products) and are issued by every major economy in the world. They provide limited protection to the innovator from unlicensed copying. These are especially important, as Planet Money notes, in software and pharmaceuticals, where development costs are high and production costs are low. Patents have been issued as early as the 15th century and are written into the U.S. Constitution specifically “to promote science and the useful arts”. So the fringe intellectuals who oppose patents, as quoted by Planet Money, believe that every advanced industrial economy that has provided patent protection has been wrong for more than 500 years.

That’s all well and good. But patent opponents are essentially arguing for a case that does not now exist. True, we do that routinely in political (and economic) debate. Try this, we say, it will be better my way. It’s hard to make solid economic arguments using only models because we can’t predict the future. But that’s what the opponents of patents are doing: Trust us.

Except there are several examples from history that the Planet Money team could have explored for the effect of patent-less economies. They simply ignored them. That’s too bad, because the debate over patents seems to come in waves of every 50 years or so. For example, the Netherlands specifically abandoned patents in 1869 but reinstated them in 1912. Germany didn’t adopt patents until 1877, Switzerland until 1907. How did this state of affairs affect these countries’ development? Planet Money doesn’t seem interested.

But probably the best example of a patent-less economy is the Soviet Union. From about 1922 until the collapse of communism 70 years later, the Soviet Union abolished all intellectual property protections. It was a socialist economy — the state owned everything, including ideas. Instead, the government issued “certificates of invention”, a sort of “Hero of Soviet Labor” for innovators that included a small stipend. That way we can measure creativity and innovation in the world’s largest socialist economy.

The results are stark. With the exception of sloped armor, a minor advance in antibiotics, and the AK-47 (for which I can find no record Mikhail Kalashnikov received a certificate of invention), the Soviet Union produced almost nothing new for 70 years. Virtually every major advance the nation built was stolen — aircraft (Tu-4), weapons (atomic and hydrogen bombs), computers and software (5e series, Agat, MOS) and spacecraft (Buran, see above). When the country opened up in the early 1990s, it was clear the advanced parts of the economy trailed the West by 30-40 years. The rest of the country was still living in the 19th century. Socialism was an economic calamity and had its worst effect on the innovative sector. Russia adopted intellectual property protections immediately.

That’s not to say the Soviets didn’t try. As the patent-less nations of the 19th century also did, Soviet innovators sought patent protection abroad for their innovations. The Soviet Union filed for 7,000 patents in the United States during the 20th century — comparable, one observer notes, to an advanced country like Belgium or Austria. (The observer fails to note both countries have a fraction of the Soviet Union’s population). But more importantly, there is little evidence that these patents led to commercialization. That is, despite the recognition of innovation by an advanced economy, the Soviet Union could not market the products — the results of these innovations — in advanced Western economies.

Perhaps Planet Money ignored the Soviet example because the effects of socialism were too distorting. Or maybe its results are so stark it simply pours cold water on the argument that patents hinder innovation and economic development. But it is important to look at this example in part because many patent opponents view them as market inhibitors. Yet in a socialist economy without patent inhibitions — indeed, in the worker’s paradise where the laborer owned the means of production — creativity and innovation died. Lesson learned?

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Thinking Through Ukraine

(via The DailyKos)

I was at NATO when Russia invaded its neighbor, Georgia, in August 2008. The action caught anyone not paying attention by surprise. The experts knew it was long in coming. I’m sure the same is for the unfurling crisis in Ukraine, which nonetheless doesn’t help us steer a course away from general war on the Black Sea, the doorstep of the European Union.

At the time of that short, brutal war I remember there were many calls for NATO to intervene and a tremendous amount of frustration that the Allies did not. But a French colleague pointed out to those of us assembled in my division — we were short-staffed during the August holidays — that NATO’s contribution at that point was not to inflame the situation but to defuse it. The European Union, led by French President Nicholas Sarkozy, led the political charge to end the war within a week.

I remember a little-noted post scriptum to that war — NATO’s inadvertent (I think) contribution — that may be useful to keep in mind in this crisis. That was the introduction of the NATO Standing Maritime Group 1 into the Black Sea after fighting had ended. SMG1 entered the Black Sea on a planned and routine patrol — either it was deliberately allowed into this highly primed theater or nobody thought to turn it back — and the Russian reaction was hysterical. After the Russians sank the small Georgian fleet and basically did what they wanted across the country, SMG1 fundamentally altered the force dynamic in the theater. SMG1 really got the Russians’ attention, and it suggests to me that Moscow will never pick a fight with an equal or superior adversary if it can avoid it.

It’s probably obvious, but an excellent commentary by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty noted that the territorial grab in Crimea is not an isolated action but opens a second political front for Moscow. The revolution in Kiev was a green light to similarly minded activists in Moscow that thuggish regimes have their weaknesses, especially if the military can be sidelined. By mobilizing the armed forces against Ukraine, Russia both moved to crush the nascent west-leaning government in Kiev and communicated clearly to the domestic Russian opposition what consequences would follow for attempting to duplicate what happened there in Moscow.

This action also plays into the Kremlin’s interests by forcing our eyes off of other crises where it has waning influence, like Syria and Iran. Moscow can continue to back its client state and Damascus can destroy its internal opposition and rebellion (and weaken its neighbors with refugees) while we are diverted by Ukraine and Crimea. But we are powerful enough not to be distracted and must continue to pressure Syria and Iran while also resolving the crisis in Ukraine.

While Russia may look strong at the moment, it’s important to recognize that the country is acting from a position of weakness — and that the country’s action in Crimea is a fundamental and tremendous risk. If the Kremlin fails in Crimea or Ukraine, the weakness of the regime will be virtually impossible to ignore. No amount of propaganda about fighting fascists and the intransigent enemies of Russia will be able to cover for a failure of this kind. And with this failure, the domestic Russian opposition to the Kremlin will feel emboldened to move against the regime just as the opposition did in Kiev. So instead of being in a position of strength, in reality the Kremlin is extremely exposed. When Vladimir Putin fails, he will lose everything. So he can’t afford to fail, which is what makes this crisis so particularly dangerous.

Another reality I learned from the war with Georgia was the entangling nature of Russia’s relationship with the West. I think we were far more worried about this state of affairs than the Kremlin, but it was important and interesting (if not a little infuriating) to stop and deliberate on all the ways that NATO (and more broadly, the United States and the European Union) cooperated with Russia on issues and initiatives of mutual interest. We on the NATO staff literally cataloged all the ways we were working together with Russia, which still has a diplomatic mission on the same compound at NATO Headquarters. At that time, we were working together on overflight rights for resupply to to Afghanistan, nuclear disarmament (both START and the more concrete aspects of securing fissile material), ballistic missile defense, anti-piracy, anti-terrorism, energy security, and the High North. We’re still working with Russia on all those things, more or less — not least or more recent of which was the successful execution of a safe and secure Winter Olympics. All of these issues of mutual interest (and undoubtedly more) are on the table if we escalate this crisis.

It’s important to consider that the political situation in Ukraine may not be as polarized or volatile as it appears. Consider the map at the top of this post. Much as been made about how the country is split between western Ukrainian speakers and eastern Russian speakers. But a view of a linguistic map (and the CIA World Factbook) demonstrates the picture is far more complex than that. First, Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers blend fairly evenly throughout most of the country, especially in Kiev. The exceptions are the extreme west and extreme east. Second, Ukrainian-speakers are the outright majority in the entire country. Only in the south and the far east do Russian-speakers hold something close to an absolute majority, which explains in part why the Kremlin seized Crimea (which includes Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet), first.

So the larger lesson is: don’t take the linguistic or ethnic divide as concrete or immutable. Nobody has polled the Ukrainians about this situation. Nobody knows how much Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers have intermingled and inter-married. Nobody has even bothered to ask them much about what’s going on in their country. Only the most radical elements are speaking out. Do we want to make decisions about war and peace and secession and rebellion based on what we see on television or have read on the Internet just in the last few days?

What can we do? Other observers, not least of which include individual Allies, have been maddened by the endless emergency sessions of the UN, OSCE, EU and NATO, which have issued a stream of statements but taken no tangible action. Here is what we could do, almost immediately, for Ukraine in its time of need that doesn’t involve military provocation:

  • Deliver $15 billion in loan guarantees to secure the country financially.
  • Grant Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, fast-tracking the countries for NATO membership.
  • Finalize the Eastern Partnership with the European Union.
  • Prepare to ship LNG to Ukraine (and Romania and Bulgaria).
  • Prepare to airlift humanitarian, medical and food supplies to Ukraine.
  • Impose sanctions on Russia’s leadership.
  • Prepare to close off European trade with Russia.

It’s important to know that the force differential favors Ukraine in the East-West face-off. While Ukraine may be at a disadvantage right now facing Russia, Ukrainians are fighting on their own territory and with the support of the West. A variety of military options are available to NATO and Ukraine’s European backers. I hesitate to offer them here because I am not an operational or regional expert. But suffice to say NATO controls access to the Black Sea and the North Atlantic, and could control at will the airspace over the Black Sea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is made up mostly of anti-submarine ships, which are vulnerable to surface combatants and aircraft, and as one observer noted, “The Italian navy alone could easily destroy it.” Any action taken by NATO or even by any individual Ally would fundamentally alter the military balance in this nascent conflict to Russia’s detriment.

But getting to a point I made earlier, that’s what makes this conflict so potentially dangerous. Putin can’t afford to lose. And the escalation ladder goes right up to the nuclear trigger. While I think cooler heads will prevail, and I think it’s possible for everyone to fight without drawing in that option, those are the stakes involved. Indeed, that has to be in the back of everyone’s mind, if for no other reason than that was how one proxy war was brought to a close. The 1973 Yom Kippur War ended when the United States put its nuclear weapons on worldwide alert following a Soviet resupply to the embattled Arab armies. The alert got Moscow’s attention, and, not willing to escalate the crisis, both superpowers forced their proxies to the negotiation table. But in this situation, can we be sure the bluff won’t be called?

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The Interpreter of Comedies

The extended appearance of Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina on The Colbert Report Feb. 7 is worth watching for any number of reasons, top among them are hearing two victims of Vladimir Putin’s regime speaking in their own language. Undeterred from their ordeal, they are in the United States to try to make Russia a better place.

But it is also amazing to watch how well this interview works considering that it is consecutively interpreted in Russian and English between the interview subjects and Stephen Colbert’s weird ultraconservative alter ego. Colbert maintains his usual quick and sympathetic wit, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina more than keep up with him. Given their experience, their humor and barbs against the man responsible for their imprisonment and amnesty are all the more extraordinary and biting.

And keeping stride between the two sides — the Russians on one, Colbert and his unpredictable character on the other — is Anna Kadysheva, the interpreter. A professional interpreter and photographer living in New York, she deserves extraordinary praise for her deft linguistic abilities. This interview could have easily gone flat, but she brought the same smarts in two languages to the table as her subjects displayed to convey the bite and humor in both directions.

This is no mean achievement. Translation usually kills humor first. The situational aspect of the interview, and the obvious good will and intelligence arrayed at the table, helped the comedy vault the language barrier. But it was easy to miss how fluidly Anna kept the laughs flowing back and forth between subjects and interrogator. Listening to her, I recalled a professional’s admiring comment that it was Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire “backwards, and in heels”. The studio audience loved every second.

It’s not clear that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s visit to the United States has done them much good politically back home — the anonymous collective known as Pussy Riot back in Russia has apparently broken off with them as they pursue their cause of prison reform. And going under the glare of the American media surely won’t help them with Putin’s propaganda machine, which can easily hijack Colbert’s hijinks to show how much the anti-Russian American media megalith, already tweeting furiously about their unfinished rooms in Sochi (as if that were not mere coincidence), loves these women and is conspiring to oppress the greatness of Russia.

But they have to talk to those who will listen. There is no other way to communicate what they have to say, and communication is part and parcel of real change. It is clear that they are sincere about that, and we can only hope their celebrity will protect them — and their friends — from the harm that has come to so many others back home.

This post was updated on March 5, 2014.

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“We have met the enemy and he is us”

(Walt Kelly, via Language Log, University of Pennsylvania)

Attending a conference of public diplomacy professionals and academics last week at the U.S. State Department, a particular comment made by a participant during one of the main sessions struck me. He described the positive outcome of a recent YES Program exchange from Indonesia (if memory serves) with the students describing to him their delight in learning that Americans are not as violent, profane and promiscuous as they have been led to believe from U.S. television and movie exports to their country. Given the small scale of the YES Program (hundreds of secondary students each year) competing with the Hollywood juggernaut, he came to the unavoidable, pessimistic conclusion cribbed from Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The most depressing aspect of this observation was not that he was necessarily right but that it passed without comment or rebuttal from the audience made up of diplomats, academics, policy-makers and students of public diplomacy. That is, his opinion — that American culture is a political weakness and strategic liability — has become the fixed, conventional wisdom of the governing class.

This is as dangerous and backwards as it is also plainly wrong. The obvious shame and embarrassment many of our diplomats, scholars and others share about our culture — which hundreds of millions of real people consume and enjoy around the world without coercion — demonstrate an elitism that blinds them to what is in fact a strategic asset. And it keeps them from recognizing and harnessing an extraordinary delivery vehicle for American culture, values and democracy, a mechanism feared and repressed by regimes we stand against.

A glance at the Pew Global Attitudes Project demonstrates, at the very least, profound diversity of opinion about the United States, Americans, American culture, and American values. These opinions do not always appear to jibe, but they are not uniformly low. The pleasure that people get from American film and television is remarkably high, and even in those countries that suggest fewer enjoy our movies and shows, they include a solid minority — suggesting a cultural debate is fermenting there.

These numbers are worth examining in detail. Like all public opinion, they are dynamic and subject to the particular socio-political environment in which they are taken. Pakistan, for example, is directly affected by the neighboring war in Afghanistan, U.S. drone strikes, and American rapprochement with India. Opinion towards the United States in Turkey has taken a bad hit since the war with Iraq and is only slowly recovering. Israel feels strong cultural affinity for the United States as an ally. And so on.

But the larger frustration I felt, as I kept my arm aloft trying to rebut during the session last week, was the point that Hollywood is a platform and megaphone, arguably the largest and loudest in the world. Holding it at a contemptuous distance ignores the potential of working with the Dream Factory to tell stories we want to share with the world. As I have written in my book, when Hollywood authentically captures or broadcasts a foreign culture to international audiences, that faithfulness redounds to our benefit. Why shouldn’t we try to influence how that is done? The Pentagon does.

During the conference last week, participants of all stripes lauded the Jazz Ambassadors and jazz broadcasts via Voice of America during the Cold War over and over again. Did they think America jazz represented this promiscuous, profane, and violent culture? Of course not. But the countries to which those broadcasts and programs were aimed certainly did. Which is why they claimed then that jazz was as poisonous as chemical weapons. Or, more recently, that Disneyland was as radioactive as Chernobyl.

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Lou Reed and the Power of Art

Lou Reed and Vaclav Havel in 2005 (via The Wall Street Journal)

Lou Reed died today at 71. The standard obituaries have noted his profound influence on popular music since the 1960s and 1970s. Dig a little deeper and you might find, as The New Republic did, that he affected political leaders like Vaclav Havel. Indeed, in the Czech Republic right now Reed’s death is being mourned for the reason that his Velvet Underground gave its name to that country’s 1989 Velvet Revolution.

The course of human events has many tributaries and that is especially true for the uprising against communist rule and Soviet occupation in Central and Eastern Europe. But the influence of popular culture on the revolution was never more acute than in Czechoslovakia,  and that can arguably be traced back to a large handful of people influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

Specifically, as I have argued elsewhere, the 1976 arrest of the Plastic People of the Universe, the Czech underground band, was the primary catalyst that united the disparate elements of the political opposition in Czechoslovakia nearly 10 years after the crushing of the Prague Spring. That united opposition penned Charter 77 and later became the Civic Forum, which negotiated a peaceful end to Com munist Party rule in Czechoslovakia.

Rock’n’Roll has long been considered, by itself and others, as a socially revolutionary force. And indeed, its greatest enemies make it “political” by banning the music as disruptive of the social order or morally corrupting. But nowhere in history that I know has rock’n’roll come so close to overthrowing the political order as the Plastic People did, and, by extension, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. That is, people were willing to engage in revolution not just for political expression but for aesthetic expression, too. When you think about it, that may be the most important part of the political order after all.

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The Image and the Message in Syria

President Barack Obama addresses the nation Tuesday night. Evan Vucci/Pool/AP Photo via ABC News

President Barack Obama, an able writer and orator, is substantially challenged when he must speak about armed conflict. His formal speeches about warfare – whether he is lecturing the Nobel Committee in Oslo about just war theory, or muddling his Afghanistan strategy before the Corps of Cadets at West Point – are among his worst. Whether that is because his foreign policy speechwriters are among his poorest, or he is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the subject, I don’t know. But his deficiency as a speaker on matters of war and peace is important and notable, since last night he had suddenly to lead his country into a fight rather than out of one.

I should note that writing and talking about war and its prospect clearly, lucidly and compellingly are very difficult. Despite the drumbeat of war the previous 12 years, American presidents in fact don’t speak about these matters very often. Most conflicts since the 1940s have been wars “of choice,” so the saying goes – but in reality most of them have required U.S. intervention and therefore an articulation of the reasons and means to the American people. That always requires the American president to speak to the public, to rally them, and explain why we fight. Unless we have been attacked – which has only happened three times in our history – this is always a difficult argument to make.

That’s what President Obama did last night to explain why American force is needed to punish the Syrian regime for its recent use of chemical weapons during its civil war. It’s strange to say for the President, who is normally so extraordinarily eloquent and poignant, who can find and distill the essence of even the most knotty and controversial political issues, that he still struggles with these issues. He’s in good company – not many of his predecessors did much better articulating why American military might must be brought to bear in distant countries. But it is important to examine why his remarks were so tepid.

First, the President has at least as much a fixation on the indelible image as his predecessor did. It seemed at times that for President Bush the only reality of the vicious civil war in Iraq was what he saw on television. And so the image constantly appeared in his rhetoric about the war: not the war itself, but what we saw of the war — a sort of collective, and secondary, visual experience. This both minimized and misrepresented the war, because by 2006 even television couldn’t contain the apocalyptic violence destroying the country: 600 attacks each day, two million refugees, thousands of Iraqi dead, hundreds of American casualties. The spectacular attacks that broke through the chaos and noise, such as the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, were only single pieces of a madness that threatened to overwhelm everything else – least of which, but importantly, was our understanding of the roots of the conflict.

Unfortunately, President Obama fell into the same rhetorical trope in his speech about Syria – as if the only proof that mattered were “the videos” of the recent chemical attack on Ghuta, an eastern suburb of Damascus. That is, the President issued the equivalent of a verbal hyperlink to the public. Click here, he said in essence, this is what you need to see. But instead of “seeing” these horrible crimes, why doesn’t  the President simply assert them? He already mounted a pretty damning case. His rhetoric would be far more blunt, direct and true for it.

The President made no attempts to link this attack to prior suspected or alleged uses of chemical weapons. That is a reasonable omission, given the possibly tenuous intelligence regarding those attacks. But he also did not link the chemical weapons use to the larger, indiscriminate campaign against the Syrian people – the attacks by aircraft and helicopters, armored vehicles and tanks, and artillery – that have escalated, with grim logic, to the application of these unconventional weapons.

But this omission also explains the awkward position that the President, and our country, are in. Weary of war and reluctant to fight, it is difficult to parse the difference between these weapons of mass destruction. Both have killed thousands and forced millions of refugees to flee. The red line the President has drawn therefore may seem arbitrary. Why suddenly worry about chemical weapons that have killed 1,400, when the Syrian army and air force have without recourse to unconventional weapons killed ten times as many? The red line is the only thing suddenly implicating us.

Of course we know the difference and why the line must be drawn, for the sake of the region and international security, as the President plainly put it last night. But that leads to second peculiar trope the President returned to again and again during his address: the need to “send a message” to Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, either through the threat of force or the application of force itself.  But force is not a message. Force is a tool of policy, a means to conform your adversary’s behavior to your will. To see it otherwise is to kill people over a telegram.  The President should stop talking about “message” and simply deliver it: Assad must surrender his chemical weapons or face the consequences. But that means the President must be willing to deliver those consequences and take the risks to do so.

Perhaps the President wasn’t so clear about all this because he recognized that to do so would return him to the political-ontological quandary that faced the United States and the international community in Iraq after 1991. Iraq resisted verifiable disarmament, even after its chemical weapons stocks were destroyed during Operation Desert Fox in 1998. The CIA took such resistance as proof the stocks existed. The resistance was a bluff because, as Assad has amply demonstrated, those stocks were on hand not to attack the West or defend the nation from invasion but to protect the regime from an internal uprising.

But once international law and inspections were invoked by Russia, the question of whether Syria will disarm becomes political, not technical. And that question could drag out for years. In the meantime, there is nothing keeping Assad from using all the other means available to him to crush out the opposition while we watch.

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American Republic, Now Available from Amazon

I’m pleased to announce that my book, American Republic: Essays on the Nature of Politics, is now available in Kindle and paperback from Amazon.com.

American Republic includes the original book, plus three essays that first appeared on this site: “The Plastics and the Political,” “Faith, Politics and ‘The West Wing,'” and “Democracy and Political Language”. 

The Kindle format retails at $6.95 and the paperback is also available for $12.99.

The paperback is also available direct through the publisher, and we hope to have it available through Barnes and Noble and in other book stores soon.

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Politics, Propaganda and Pornography on the Web in China

China Daily front from May 2012

A recent New York Review of Books post by Perry Link is worth reading to learn the lengths and depths to which the Chinese government will go to control content and opinion on the Internet in that country.  China has learned to embrace the Internet in some ways, recognizing that the government in some sense can’t live without it and can’t deprive the people of it. But the central authorities view the Internet in much the same way that the Nazis and Soviets viewed the emerging art and technology of the movies in the 1930s: as a powerful tool to augment propaganda, which is, in the mordant definition of Hitler message man Joseph Goebbels, “a means to state control”.

Link is drawing attention to the work of his colleague Xiao Qing at the University of California, who has received, archived and catalogued thousands of “directives” from China’s propaganda officials to central and regional news and Internet officials to play up, play down, censor, muzzle, close comment, applaud or condemn various bits of information that are vacuumed up in the social space of the Chinese Intranet. It is impossible to read these directives and not think of Winston Smith, alone at his cubicle next to the memory hole, carrying out similar directives in the Ministry of Truth. Indeed, Xiao calls his unofficial repository the Ministry of Truth. He provides an extraordinary glimpse inside perhaps the largest and most sophisticated propaganda machinery in the world.

Link, an academic and translator of Charter 08 into English, provides some additional insights based on a conference that Xiao hosted last month in Berkeley that included several additional scholars who helped analyze his archives. The insights they brought are additionally worth reading, if for no other reason than it is an additional reminder that we do not bring every perspective required to this material. Perhaps the most important insight rendered is this:

“One of the principal aims of the government directives is to prevent unapproved groups from organizing through the Internet (noted as “incitement,” “gatherings,” etc.); some of the scholars argued that this goal is even more fundamental than prevention of negative comment about the Party.”

That is, among the government’s top priorities in Internet control is not censorship for its own sake but to break up any nascent attempts at independent organization, which is the true and ultimate threat to the government’s control. Information, opinion and communication do not undermine the government on their own, but by how they help individuals understand, come together, and take collective action. No wonder, as Link notes, the government has lumped “political speech” in the same web category as pornography as “unhealthful to society”.

Another chilling observation in the age of the NSA revelations relates to the activity of Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. In a country where all media is state-controlled, Xinhua is effectively an open-source intelligence agency. The Internet has changed that, Link notes. Ten years ago, Xinhua’s mission, in part, was to report to China’s leadership on its own population. In the Internet era, it no longer needs to do that – the people are in effect reporting on themselves through social media, chat rooms, comment boxes and microblogs. The government only needs to read them to understand their subjects.

That’s a Thought Police even Orwell didn’t imagine.

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What The Washington Post gets wrong about The Daily Show in China

The April 9 Washington Post ran this blog post by Max Fisher about the unprecedented  number of video viewings in China of a recent Daily Show segment on North Korea. (You can watch the original clip Daily Show clip here. I’m having trouble embedding.)

The Chinese web portal Sina reposted the segment, importantly with subtitles, racking up more than three million views (and counting) – more than any other Daily Show segment short of a 2008 bit about Sarah Palin.

Unfortunately Fisher draws exactly the wrong conclusion about Chinese public opinion and viewing habits based on this single data point. He suggests that the surge in popularity indicates the average Chinese citizen’s frustration with the country’s belligerent ally, and insinuates a popular divergence from official foreign policy supporting North Korea and its young leader, Kim Jong-Un.

This is far too much to draw from this incident. Fisher is first of all comparing China’s viewership to the Daily Show’s normal audience, which is mostly American and at 300 million its fullest potential is almost a quarter the size of China’s population. Also, a cursory glance at the Sina site shows that the most popular segment on the site has views of nearly twice The Daily Show’s segment at around six million views. (I would nonetheless discount some comments in Fisher’s thread that three million views is a tiny slice of China’s population because that is not a statistically relevant or sound measure of the Chinese population in any event. It can only be measured against other views.)

But most important, Fisher provides no context or public opinion data for his assertion that this viewership represents a particular rancor about a specific policy. In a country where corruption, pollution, economic inequality, poverty, censorship, arbitrary seizures and state surveillance are pervasive, China’s policy toward its small, pugilistic neighbor cannot rank very high in public concern.  It is not even clear from the Sina site that the Chinese people are even particularly well-informed on this issue. (If China’s English propaganda mouthpiece, China Daily, is any measure, the government has not spoken often or very directly about the mounting crisis in North Korea recently.)

So why is The Daily Show segment suddenly so popular? The important context to understand this phenomenon is the Sina site itself, China’s great Firewall, and the government’s total control of all media, including the Internet, inside the country. This segment was not posted freely – that is, it was posted for a reason – but that doesn’t make its existence in China any less interesting or exciting. Another cursory glance at the Sina site makes The Daily Show stand out even more: this is satire – cutting, anti-authoritarian satire – in a country that brooks no political dissent.

Given that context, Jon Stewart practically explodes off the Chinese web. Against the drab greys of state propaganda, The Daily Show contrasts in psychedelic Technicolor. This is the Web-TV equivalent of stumbling across jazz in 1960s Moscow or rock’n’roll in 1970s Prague. The Daily Show perfectly captures what’s missing in a society where the government dominates all creative and political expression.

That is why this segment is so popular: it is so unusual in a country that normally does not tolerate questioning of authority, much less mocking it. Fisher gets this very wrong, and it is important that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions about what the Chinese people think and know and feel.

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“A Theory of Deeds” Threatens the Russian State

The web site of Togeza (Together), a Russian civil society organization.

Could helping your neighbor deem you an enemy of the state? The Duma, Russia’s legislature, is leaning that way by trying to regulate what de Tocqueville admired in early America: the “innumerable multitude of small undertakings” that constitute community, what we today call civil society.

Today’s Washington Post front page carries a story about a handful of Russians trying to do for their communities what their government and others have manifestly failed to do: caring for the sick in a remote, rural village; donating delivery services to those who can’t afford them; searching for the missing whom the police have given up on.

“This is our theory of small deeds,” said Yevgeny Grekov, the philosophically minded assistant to the delivery group. “It’s pure human energy.”

Unfortunately, these organizations and individuals have attracted the attention of the Duma as well as Vladimir Putin, who has personally harassed democratically minded non-profit organizations who monitored the last elections that made him President again. In Putin’s Russia, more control has been centralized in the Kremlin over wider aspects of human affairs.

The Washington Post places blame for this concentration and expansion of political dominion on a lack of individual trust among Russians and the reassertion of powers familiar from the Communist era. I’m more inclined to argue again that in repressive regimes the concept of civil society, civic action, and even individual initiative does not really exist — that in such a context, everything has political value as defined by the Center, and that all aspects of civic action are a means for state control over society. Therefore, anything or anyone acting independently of the state is a threat to the state, an independent and autonomous power base separate from — and necessarily opposed to –the Center.

This illuminates both Masha Gessen’s comments about the lack of “real politics” in Russia and Hannah Arendt’s definition of true and healthy politics as space, the commons.  The Duma is trying to subsume all civil society by dominating collective moral action in the same tiny, claustrophobic political box. After taking control of the Kremlin, the intelligence apparatus, the military, the parliament, the media and the church, that leaves just ordinary people working together for some common purpose.  After that, Russia will look very much like Eastern and Central Europe after World War II.

It may seem counterintuitive, despite all this I remain optimistic for Russians, mostly because in a country so large and with so many people, that noble “multitude of small undertakings” will always outstrip the ability and comprehension of the state.  Call it the power of the powerless or the weakness of strong states, but the Duma’s action against these individuals only demonstrates the fear of a sclerotic state against an increasingly confident society that has abandoned the government to take care of itself. And that, in the end, that may be the greatest threat the Kremlin faces.

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