October 22, 2009
KUALA LUMPUR – During an interview this week for my new short story collection, Velvet & Cinder Blocks, the Malaysian reporter mentioned she had just returned from a conference in Mexico City that brought together individuals, academics, and private and public sector leaders from around the world to help grassroots movements produce positive social change through new technology.
Her sponsor? The US State Department.
That same morning I read about China’s failed effort to control the flow of information at the Frankfurt Book Fair, with communist officials insisting that its German hosts un-invite dissident Chinese writers. Local politicians hit back, the international media caught on, and the fair’s “honored guest” unwittingly dishonored itself.
This would be just another instance of communistic control versus democratic freedom, if not for its uniquely 21st century twist, one that captures the two powers’ divergent approaches to information in the information era and which is impacting their respective soft power reach.
So it was that while China was trying to pretend certain people in the world don’t exist, Washington was teeing off with the world’s youth and most energetic brands (including Facebook, WordPress, MTV, and Google). So it was that while China tried to stem the flow of information, Washington was flowing with the technological tide.
China reportedly spent $15 million to expand its cultural reach and managed nearly every aspect of its Frankfurt exhibit. Washington surely spent ample sums on Mexico City in part no doubt to boost its own image but was happy to share the limelight with others, not all of whom share Washington’s views. Chinese officials were said to be especially worried that the Dalai Lama might attend and that sellers would display books by banned movements like the Falun Gong. Washington invited people from countries that openly oppose American values. While China exuded narrow self-interest, Washington brought a message of global interest.
Let’s put that into further context. Here was the world’s most powerful nation in history showing that it wants to share power with everyday people from all walks of life. As my book interviewer made clear, it was hard not to be seduced by Washington in Mexico City.
What China has yet to grasp – and there’s no guarantee it will anytime soon – is that you can’t force-feed the world an oppressive set of values that it already rejects. You can’t improve your image by trying to deprive the world of information. You don’t win hearts and minds by standing in staunch opposition to global norms and ideals.
The second annual Alliance of Youth Movements Summit in Mexico City was a reminder that the world of information is moving at light speed in the opposite direction than China’s wishes. Attendees learned about two college graduates in Columbia who used Facebook to organize the world’s biggest anti-terrorism demonstration in history; about youth in Iran who used Twitter and Youtube to mobilize support after fraudulent elections earlier this year; and about how to further empower themselves. Through a video message, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of common interest. “You are the vanguard of a rising generation of citizen activists” from different countries and cultures, who speak different languages but “share a common commitment to engaging with the world, using every tool at your disposal to bring people together to solve problems.”
Without naming China directly, Washington effectively took aim at the communist party and other oppressive regimes. It was hard to miss the allusion when Clinton spoke of young democrats “driving progress” and referred to them as “the kind of leaders we need as we work to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the 21st century.”
Bilateral economic dependency has muted Washington’s criticism of Beijing, and vice versa. But as Mexico City showed, Washington remains committed to opposing tyranny. It’s just finding new and innovate ways to deliver the poison darts.