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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:34 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:34

It might seem like the free exchange of information over the Internet poses a threat to authoritarian governments that attempt to control their citizens by limiting access to news and history. U.S. diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks confirm that China's government initially reacted that way to the Internet but later changed its thinking and came to see the Internet as a controllable, even useful, force.

Whereas the leaked State Department cables indicate black-and-white thinking by Chinese leaders, however, experts describe a more nuanced, even self-contradictory response to the Internet by the Chinese Communist Party. Understanding that the commercial benefits of the Internet can provide stability in the face of political unrest, Beijing simultaneously treats the Internet as a destabilizing element and a force for social control.

"It’s dynamic thing. It's not 'We've conquered the Internet and let’s move on to other things.' They’re still fearful of it, but they think they've gotten a handle on it," said James Mulvenon, director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis. "The Chinese leadership is like my teenage daughter: They are a curious combination of cocky swagger and chronic insecurity."

Mao-dun problems

The Chinese are so comfortable with paradoxes such as the Internet that they even have a word for them: mao-dun. Literally translated as "the sword and the shield," mao-dun is a grouping of opposites into a single whole, Mulvenon told TechNewsDaily. As a tool for repression and freedom, the Internet is very mao-dun.

Designed to disseminate information as widely and easily as possible, the Internet has defiance of control built into its DNA. To correct for that natural freedom, the Chinese government began adding elements of control into China’s digital infrastructure from the very beginning, said O. Sami Saydjari, president of Cyber Defense Agency.

However, attempts to control the Web come at a cost. To benefit from the Internet, Beijing necessarily has to live with an element of chaos.

"The Web is not very controllable. The reason is that if you intervene in the functioning of the Internet to make it more controllable, the economic costs are enormous, not to mention the social and political costs," said Scott Borg, director and chief economist of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, a nonprofit organization founded by the U.S. government that now independently consults with the government and businesses. Like Mulvenon and Saydjari, Borg would not comment directly on the WikiLeaks documents.

Losing economic benefits of the Internet could destabilize the Chinese government just as surely as a free flow of information, Mulvenon said, so any control mechanism put in place by the Chinese government mustn't block too much of the Web.

Mao-dun solutions

China's mao-dun solution was to give more freedom to the information itself, but place tighter controls on the people viewing it. For instance, Mulvenon said, Beijing turns a blind eye to a great deal of content critical of Communist rule, but it reacts swiftly and crushingly against any use of the Internet to organize around those critiques.

Similarly, long prison terms for misusing the Internet lead most Chinese citizens to police themselves in the absence of any actual controls. The information may be available from China, and the majority of citizens too afraid to view it.

"In China, the consequences of being caught are so steep, you’re dissuaded from even trying," Saydjari told TechNewsDaily.

While the WikiLeaks cables portray them as growing increasingly confident in their ability to control the Internet, Chinese leaders actually are constantly moving back and forth between confidence and fear as new developments such as Twitter and text messaging present new problems for them.

Mulvevon said:  "There's so much focus in the media on the number of Internet police [monitoring people in China], but that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t give credit to the real sophistication and cleverness of how the Chinese designed the system."

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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