This morning, out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Liu Xiaobo was a trending topic on Twitter. Next thing I knew, I was crying, but half in puzzlement as my brain hadn’t had a chance to process the information. Reflecting for a second, I muttered, “He won.” The only other option was that he had died – and if he had, he would have died in relative global obscurity as the world has too many heroes and too little heart for them. Dead, he would not be on Twitter’s global trending list.
This lag-time between my heart and my brain occurred because I hadn’t been tracking the day of the Nobel announcement. While deeply aware of its global significance, I will be first to say that the Nobel Peace Prize is a hit-and-miss affair and one often riddled in hypocrisy. (Prizes for sitting presidents conducting ongoing wars? Really?) The brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer is rumored to have declared political satire dead after Henry Kissinger won the prize in 1973. However, this year’s award is right on as Liu Xiaobo is a courageous moral leader and deserves this prize as much as anyone who has ever been awarded or considered for it.
Although I had lost track of the Nobel calendar, I am pretty sure that most Chinese dissidents were acutely aware of the day. And, hopefully, many had either gone into hiding or had taken care of their immediate affairs, as this will surely be followed by a crackdown. Chinese Foreign Ministry huffed that “The Nobel Committee giving the Peace Prize to such a person runs completely contrary to the aims of the prize” – you can be sure this means more repression, soon. We already know that all news of the prize beaming into China via CNN, BBC, etc. has been censored. Mark MacKinnon of the Globe and Mail tweeted that the text message system blocks all spellings of Liu Xiaobo’s name.
So, why do I think this is a good thing for global democracy and for freedom in China – even though the Nobel process is very undemocratic (who is on this committee anyway and who appointed them?), can be hypocritical, and will unleash a torrent of repression? Especially since we can also be sure that the very tool, information and communication technologies, ones that Liu famously celebrated in an essay titled “The internet is God’s present to China” will be used in that crackdown as the government hunts down the bloggers, the tweeters, the texters who dare breath his name.
Because I think the power of Internet to concentrate international condemnation is stronger, over the long-run, than the power of the repressive regimes to use these technologies to suppress their citizenry.
The debate over the Internet’s role in political movements has falsely concentrated on whether they ease organizing by dissidents (as Liu Xiaobo himself, Clay Shirky, and others argue) more than they ease suppression by the government (as Evgeny Morozov and others point out). Yes, thanks to the Internet, organizing collective action by ordinary people is easier than ever before, and yes, state censorship and repression is more able to track and target dissidents. But that’s not the key issue.
The Internet is not a game-changer in the sense of a cat-and-mouse game because, yes, it empowers both the cat and the mouse. It is a game-changer because we are not cats or mouse but people, and people care deeply about what other people think of them and how they conduct their lives. In the 21st century, it is not sustainable for a governing elite to be both repressive at home and welcome in the world — and most elites deeply desire the latter as much as they may still cling to the former. One can point to apparent exceptions like the Burmese Junta but I think the formulation holds for most.
People almost never win over a repressive regime because they are better organized or better equipped or better able to get things done. All the examples one can point to are going to be rare remaining weak states or regimes from the past: the modern repressive state is just too powerful. People win over repressive regimes because the elites in those regimes are also people, and as people, they also crave the sense of belonging and legitimacy that people everywhere, even the most powerful, crave. People can win not because they can beat back force with force (they rarely can), but because they can withdraw their consent and undermine the standing the rulers have to repress, as the repressive apparatus itself consists of people. I think the collapse of the Soviet blocs is an amazing example of how the seemingly strongest state can wither away after being hollowed out through lack of legitimacy. (Pick your example: Apartheid South Africa, East Timor, etc.)
And the Internet is bringing about nascent forms of organizing collective, global expression of consent (and lack thereof) and that is a very welcome development. I am sure there is a small sliver among the topmost echelons of the Chinese power structure who are merely (but deeply) annoyed by this development and can click on the “censor and repress” button without a second thought except how to get through the storm. However, I’m equally sure that there are many, many, probably younger, members of the Chinese elite who are embarrassed that BBC news went blank for six minutes shortly after the words “an imprisoned Chinese dissident wins the Nobel Peace Pri…” were uttered. I am sure many Chinese academics and businessman and students –the kind who travel abroad—are dreading the inquisitive questions they may face from well-meaning colleagues and friends the next time they have lunch. I am sure that many members of the elite in China want their country to be a respected member of the global community rather than a country that is known for censorship and repression. And I am sure many ordinary Chinese people will now learn of both the prize and the attempt to censor it. And all that, surely, will bring about change; not in weeks or months, but in our lifetimes.
The trending global topic list in Twitter is a simple example of capacity of the Internet to focus and express the world’s attention. Yes, Twitter is mostly full of trivia, as it should be as mundanity is the stuff of life. On the other hand, that’s also where one can see how we, as a world, are talking about topics of global importance: the heartbreak of the earthquake in Haiti (and how to help), the death of Miep Gies (the protector of Anne Frank), and Liu Xiaobo (who will learn of his prize after billions of people already know of it).
This brings me back to the sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement and the debate that has been broiling over the Internet over what kinds of social ties produce social movements. Whatever the nuances of the dynamics that start social movements, it is clear that social movements succeed when they win such strong legitimacy that they otherwise threaten the legitimacy of the rulers. Lyndon Johnson and others before him were deeply embarrassed by the (well-deserved) international condemnation that the U.S. faced as the images from the brutality inflicted upon the protesters were beamed around the world. Many ordinary white people who might not have given the status of African-Americans in the nation much thought before were horrified by what they were seeing. Without that component, the civil rights movement might have been remembered as a brave but futile effort.
The undermining of legitimacy is not the kind of development that causes overnight change but that, over the long run, ensures that the moral arc of the universe does indeed bend towards justice, but only over the long term. And Internet, through its capacity to express, concentrate and develop the boundaries of what the world citizenry considers morally unacceptable, can help make that happen. The questions on the table are how to develop the tools, the understanding, and infrastructure required so that the convening power of global consent, legitimacy and attention is not at the mercy of the good sense of a few people in Norway.