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A Cautious Welcome for Premier Zhu

Chinese Leader Should Explain His Nation’s Internet, Nuclear Policies

Kris Schnee

On April 14, Premier Zhu Rongji of the People’s Republic of China plans to visit MIT to give a speech on “a topic relating to science, technology and education in a global society.” The appearance is part of a scheduled nine-day visit to America, which includes Washington and other cities. Surely, there will be a packed auditorium for Zhu’s speech -- tickets are being distributed through an online lottery, a system not deemed necessary even for speakers like Noam Chomsky and Ian Wilmut. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people have probably signed up for the event (this author included). We do not yet know exactly what Zhu will talk about, but it’s fascinating to imagine the possibilities.

One topic related to “education in a global society” would be freedom of speech and the Internet. For several years now, China has been trying to modernize its computer networks and gain the benefits of the World Wide Web -- but only some of those benefits.

In late 1997, the Chinese government issued a new set of regulations on its people’s use of Web resources. Having gotten over the “Communications Decency Act,” Americans now debate how sales tax should be levied for online commerce. The Chinese, however, face the more basic issue of communication itself. The new Chinese laws, contained in twenty-five articles, threaten fines and other, unspecified punishments for various crimes such as “defaming government agencies” -- that is, criticizing the government. Other crimes include trying to “split the country”-- for instance, advocating freedom for Tibet or accepting Taiwanese independence -- and divulging loosely-defined “state secrets.” Premier Zhu might explain to the MIT community why the Chinese people need to be protected from opinions other than that of their own government. Social stability is one of the Net-censorship laws’ goals, and the Chinese government is apparently trying to maintain its power by suppressing new ideas. Is this attitude towards a global society good for anyone?

Zhu might also tell us about the global expansion of democracy, and why China resists it. The most famous example of China’s attitude towards dissent is the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which protesting students were killed en masse by government troops. Reports continue to reach America, despite government control of the media, that persecution of journalists, religious groups, and other groups continues. The China Democracy Party, not surprisingly, complains of government harassment. And as soon as Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control, the Beijing government swiftly moved to make the province’s legislature more heavily based on appointment by Communist Party officials, and less on Western customs like democratic elections. The UN, with American support, is now preparing a resolution condemning China for its dismal human rights record.

Says Tao Wenzhao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: “U.S. expectations of China are too high.” Apparently while we should not expect China to have even a nineteenth-century republican government, we are expected to regard China as a twenty-first century economic power worthy to join the World Trade Organization. Even if China’s economy is formidable, are we willing to give the non-democratic Chinese government a voice in global trade issues along with governments chosen by the people they represent?

Or Premier Zhu could tell us about the “science and technology” of nuclear weapons. Presumably the Chinese government has learned much about that subject over the last few decades, thanks to its spies. The fault is ours as well; as the Energy Department reports, three government nuclear weapons facilities had “less than satisfactory” security in 1998. One of these facilities is the Los Alamos lab, where suspected spy Wen Ho Lee was given a sensitive job in 1997. Recent reports, still under investigation, suggest that in the 1980s, China covertly obtained American information on the miniaturization of nuclear weapons. And in 1996, former Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung funneled illegal contributions from the Chinese government into President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign.

“We like your president,” Chinese General Ji Shengde allegedly told Chung. That’s not surprising -- Clinton granted waivers to American aerospace companies working in China, allowing them to share technology which can be used to improve China’s nuclear missiles. Will Zhu tell us that we should be more open with our technological secrets, so that China will not need to go to the trouble of stealing them -- or perhaps buying them from ethically-challenged individuals?

Whatever the Chinese Premier has to say about science and education in a global society should be fascinating. We have the unique opportunity to hear some thoughts on the subject from a country where globalization is feared, science is stolen rather than learned, and learning is subject to government approval. Let’s welcome Zhu to our fine university -- but guard all of the laboratories carefully.