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Can China Innovate Without Freedom of Information?

A desire to stay relevant and powerful may push China towards new information ethics.

October 2, 2014

A protester against censorship in China. (Credit: Charlie Steele -

For many analysts, the idea that one might link China and ethics in the same breath in talking of information freedom might seem strange. In cyberspace, it is a country known more for its i-dictatorship rather than its e-democracy.

Yet, as surely as China has moved from people’s communes in agriculture to private household production or from banning private property to embracing it, China is also well down the path toward information freedom.

It may yet have several very big obstacles to cross, not the least continued censorship and punishment for dissemination of politically unorthodox ideas. But China is on that path, even if it would be a brave person who might predict the arrival time for the journey’s end. Will it be in this decade or the next one?

As long as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains in power, its default position would appear to be one of information dictatorship and continued suppression of ideas that challenge key CCP orthodoxies.

Holding on tight

The degree and character of censorship has changed massively in the last three decades. In spite of this widespread liberalization, the CCP is not giving up easily on this last bastion of dictatorship – the control of information. In fact, since Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, the screws have been tightened further.

One of the best indicators of this has been the issue of regulations concerning re-registration of all journalists in China dependent on their familiarity with CCP ideology. The regulations on journalists couple with a prohibition on Chinese news outlets from carrying news items from any other media source, especially foreign ones, without special dispensation.

So what basis is there for any hope that the CCP might tear down the remaining obstacles to information freedom in this secret state? One answer lies in understanding the trajectory of China’s innovation policy and the related policy of CCP control of education, especially the universities.

Orthodoxy vs. innovation

The country’s leaders have staked the future of the CCP on a promise of national resurgence and leadership in science and technology. The trajectory of innovation policy in China has been impressive, as have been the necessary enabling departures from Communist orthodoxy.

One of the most significant was official recognition beginning in the middle of the first decade of this century that the private sector, not the government, was the key to establishing a thriving national innovation system.

A second evolution was the recognition that such a system depends on a vibrant and creative relationship between university-based research and the private sector.

The decade since has seen progress on both fronts. However, in reform of the education system, the results for innovation policy have been dismal compared with leadership expectations. The government is still a major funder of university-based R&D, with the private sector moving only slowly to take over that role.

Evidence of change

The evidence of leadership concern can be found in the 60-point reform plan released after the CCP’s Central Committee Plenum in November 2013. One of the points calls for the “smashing” of administrative dominance in the R&D sector.

Another indication is the assumption by Xi Jinping in February 2014 of leadership of the small Politburo sub-committee responsible for the country’s informatization policy (information and communications technologies). On assuming the role, Xi said that the CCP would do everything it could to ensure that China would become a major cyber power.

Another sign is the opening up of China to foreign university campuses, something which many in the CCP would have rather avoided.

To truly liberalize universities in China in support of the innovation ambition, the CCP has to adopt different values about its role in controlling them. The CCP has to abandon old orthodoxies and ideological values in favor of a new ethic of information freedom.

The new information ethics

There is no other way to arrive at a high-performing national innovation system. There are people in important executive and advisory positions in China who accept this new brand of information ethics if only for its instrumental value.

There is however a more important and fundamental revolution underway in China. It goes beyond the instrumental approach to ethics and sees the holding of values independent of the CCP as both normal for the country and as evidence that China is a civilized country.

There is a push for moral education in China’s education system, still in its infancy, but conscious of the need for information freedom. That moral education will gather pace rapidly and feed into the instrumentalist dictates of innovation policy.

Analysts keen to understand the trajectory of China as a great power need to begin to track the confluence of emerging discourse on moral education (ethics) and the needs of the national innovation system.


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