To: Thomas Friedman


From: Chris Eberhardt

To: Thomas Friedman

Subject: Looking for an Arab Spring in China

Dear Thomas Friedman:

First I would like to say that I thought your advice for President Hu Jintao was interesting, and the first thing it made me think of was the fact that after ethnic riots in the summer of 2009 the province of Xinjiang did not have Internet access for close to ten months due to government restrictions. According to friends there was also limited ability to use mobile phones for some time. Its somewhat troubling that I remember the riots not so much as a time when over two hundred were killed and thousands injured, but rather as the day Facebook and Twitter went silent in China.

As a Sociology student myself I have often said that Chinese government officials are good students of Sociology, recognizing the ability of electronic media to make physical distance insignificant. Yet China blocking Facebook, Twitter, and seemingly every English language video hosting site, not to mention all internet access in Xinjiang could be a further case-study in a book by Monroe Price or Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu. If you have not already, I suggest you check out the book Who Controls the Internet by Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu, and if you have more time check out some of the work by Monroe Price.

I am guessing that maybe you have already reviewed some of the work by one of my advisers Professor Guobin Yang, perhaps his most recent book called The Power of the Internet in China. In the story of “Guo Baofeng, Your Mother is Calling You Home for Dinner” Professor Yang highlights the creativity exhibited on the Internet, and the ways that contemporaries just as their forbearers centuries before have found ways of working around the limits of censorship. As you may or may not know, when someone was detained a few years ago, the local police station was flooded with postcards telling the detained individual that his mother wanted him home for dinner. The police relented and let him go.

Yet there is the question of when do you try to mobilize. People tried to organize the Jasmine Revolution via the Internet here following the Arab Spring. What I remember most about these efforts, is that it has left two reporter friends tumbling, as if falling down the rabbit hole behind Alice in Wonderland, and I sit home smugly thinking I was smart enough to know that nothing meaningful would come of this Jasmine revolution.

Lately Sarah Palin has been struggling to get her history right about Paul Revere, but the story of Paul Revere tells us that revolutions did not wait for the Internet to be invented to take place. I know very little about China, yet I’m not sure that Chinese yearn enough for greater dignity as to dismantle the current political order. Thirty years ago under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping China unleashed a series of reforms, that among other things sparked innovation. Many quotes of Deng are associated with the reforms called Reform and Opening, but my favorite is “socialism does not mean shared poverty.”

Today quite often, I think you might say that socialism means shared uncertainty. Today’s parents were given homes and jobs by the state and their children line up at job fairs freshly graduated from college, uncertain of their career prospects. My friends look enviously look at me with my job teaching English, with a good salary and a free apartment. Yet at the same time, you might say that these Chinese are caught up amid a revolution that has been taking place for thirty years, of putting in place a framework where each individual seeks out his or her fortune with the state as referee. When the Chinese cry foul, and say they work hard but still can’t afford an apartment, the state as referee is supposed to act.

Yet your readers and I agree I think on one thing, the lingering question to be answered is not so much the degree to which China restricts speech and dignitary in China, but rather the current opportunities for Americans.

I quite often tell people that in some respects I think things are better here in China. There is the sense that if you work hard you can succeed. I tell them that my sense is that in the United States many people think that working hard is not enough, they just can’t figure out how to make sense of a changing economic landscape. I tell Chinese that those unemployed over 50 in the United States might never work again because their skill sets are too out of date. I tell Chinese college students that my generation may be the first generation in United States history to make less money than their parents. I tell people that while Chinese college graduates struggle to find jobs, I think they are in a much better situation because they are not saddled with debt. They can afford to move to a new city where prospects are better and not worry about loan payments lapsing.

As a reader then, what I look for, is better explanations of why the debts of American companies can be canceled, but not the debts of college students who did what they were told to and went to college. I look to you to lay out how families like mine can retrofit their homes to be more energy efficient when they are saddled with debt from making ends meet. As I watch Chinese run their own lives every day I wait for the day when the common American can again feel like s/he runs her/his own life. I look forward to your advice on how Americans can achieve a greater sense of dignity.