Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hillary Clinton and Eric Schmidt on the Economics of Freedom in China

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt recently made separate but similar comments that China needs to provide more freedoms for its people. There is much to mull over, and I recommend reading both of the pieces I reference below and Clinton's speech. In future posts I will soon cover other issues, but I will now briefly focus on a common theme in what Clinton and Schmidt said -- the belief that free expression is critical to China's continued economic development.

Jane Perlez in The New York Times shared some of what Clinton recently said while in Mongolia, a young democracy on China's northern border:
“You can’t have economic liberalization without political liberalization eventually,” [U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] said. “It’s true that clamping down on political expression or maintaining a tight grip on what people read, say or see can create an illusion of security. But illusions fade — because people’s yearning for liberty don’t.”

In a dig at China as it wrestles with an economic downturn after a decade of double-digit growth, Mrs. Clinton added, “Countries that want to be open for business but closed to free expression will find that this approach comes at cost: it kills innovation and discourages entrepreneurship, which are vital for sustainable growth.”
Clinton's speech also includes a telling passage where she mentions that wealth is not sufficient without freedom but then emphasizes how freedom can lead to more wealth:
We need to make the 21st century a time in which people across Asia don’t only become wealthy; they also must become more free. And each of us can help make that happen through our policies, our programs and our actions. And if we do, the benefit is not only will people be more free, but they will be more secure and more prosperous. If we don’t, we will limit the human and economic potential of this great region.
On the same day as Clinton's speech, Josh Rogin in The Cable shared some of what Schmidt said about his expectation that China's "active, dynamic censorship" will eventually fail:
"I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of behavior, that is my opinion," he said. "I think most people at Google would agree with that. The natural next question is when [will China change], and no one knows the answer to that question. [But] in a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely."

The push for information freedom in China goes hand in hand with the push for economic modernization, according to Schmidt, and government-sponsored censorship hampers both.

"We argue strongly that you can't build a high-end, very sophisticated economy... with this kind of active censorship. That is our view," he said.
The way Clinton and Schmidt both frame the benefits of increased freedoms is significant. The freedoms they speak of do not always directly address the pragmatic day to day concerns of many Chinese and may be easily dismissed in the face of other challenges. But expressing their value in terms of an issue that is a major concern for most in China -- economic growth -- may catch more attention and cause deeper consideration. Even if people are not convinced of the connection between free speech and China's economy, what could matter most at first is if more people in China simply further consider the possibility that what is in the interests of the U.S. and Google could also be in their own best interests.

There may be some short term pains due to what has been recently said, and the potential gains may not appear soon (something I will further address in a later post). But Clinton and Schmidt do not appear to be solely focused on the short term. One of Clinton's goals is to help convince China to change. Her speech is just a small part of that effort. One of Schmidt's likely goals is for Google to be prepared for the changes that he believes are inevitable. Yet these changes will still require "a long enough time period" to be realized. And both of their hopes for increasing freedoms in China may be more likely or more quickly realized due to something that matters to many people in China and elsewhere --- money.

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