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Monday, April 26, 2010

China's true supporters versus the hackers

Caring about China can be hard to do. Many Chinese, for starters, resent it when others express concern, viewing it as an intrusion, especially when the other party disagrees with something China has done.

Recently I wrote about the China versus Google fight. The article leaned in favor of supporting Google's decision not to accept Chinese hacking into its customers' e-mail accounts, but it hardly nominated the Google people for the Nobel Peace Prize. Even so, soon after this column, syndicated in such major world papers as The Japan Times and the Korean Times, I was told my e-mail account had been hacked. The hacking, said Google Gmail security, originated with some computers or computer networks on the mainland of China.

One can only speculate as to the cause of the hack. But it must have had something to do with the column asking China's leadership to exercise a bit more tender care when it tries to roll over people, whether they be protesters, dissidents or American corporations.

China's sovereign right to protect its internal security and stability, even sometimes in ways that are alien to the American norm, has to be accepted. The point simply is that not all American entrepreneurial thrusts into the mainland are going to come up easy winners, especially media-related ones. In China, as in other political cultures, the media is not permitted to be an independent player. Even nonprofessional media — such as social networks — are viewed as potentially subversive. Just recently, the Chinese government expanded its notorious "bureau five" to monitor interactive Web sites and other social networks.

Despite all this, we need to work with China and its government as positively as we can and avoid as much immaterial nonsense as possible. The world is a better and more stable place if China rises not only peacefully but also healthily and soundly. An American policy of passive hostility or active disruption would be counterproductive. Half a billion underemployed, furious Chinese running around the mainland looking to cause trouble is not going to do anybody any good, including China's neighbors. A disintegrated China would be a geopolitical tsunami like nothing the world has ever seen.

America needs to work with China in a respectful but careful way, while safe-guarding its national interests and not letting its military guard down. All we can do as Americans who care about China is to try to offer sensible alternative perspectives to official policy when we think such policy is taking its people in a bad direction. Indeed, by endorsing what we know to be China's mistakes, we would only be acting to undermine it.

My sense is that China's top leaders understand this quite well. One of whom this is true is clearly Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. The government's No. 2 (behind President Hu Jintao) recently penned a moving and lengthy tribute to a controversial reformist figure by the name of Hu Yaobang.

For someone of Wen's stature and standing to flat-out praise Hu, a pro-market, liberal-tendency political figure, is extraordinary. Of course Hu is safely dead and buried: He died in April, 1989, two years after being forced out of the Chinese Communist Party by hardliners. But his death became a rallying cause for the protests in Tiananmen Square that month, and he has evolved into an incandescent icon of potential political opening and reform ever since. Reportedly, tens of thousands of e-mail comments were posted in response to the premier's unexpected essay, which appeared in the Communist Party's official newspaper, People's Daily.

My guess is that my hacker or hackers did not come from the crowd applauding Wen's positive comments about Hu Yaobang. More probably, they originated from the hard core of Stalinist-style fundamentalists who regard all thoughtful criticism of China as treasonable, not to mention hack-able. It is these Neanderthals who are the true enemies of China. It is they who will bring down the country by bottling up all reasonable opinion and debate and creating the kind of gigantic pressure cooker that someday must blow up in their faces.

By contrast, it is all those Chinese e-mailers who supported Premier Wen's words, braving the risk of being hacked, who are on the right side of history. I'm with them — and all future hackers of my e-mail can count on that.

Tom Plate is a veteran U.S journalist. His book, "Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew," will be published next month by Marshall Cavendish. © Pacific Perspectives Media Center.

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