Here in the US, it's easy to picture the Chinese internet as one big game of cat and mouse — a space that's growing and vibrant, yet meticulously catered to the tastes of its political overlords. But in a TED talk delivered last month, Chinese blogger Michael Anti offered a more nuanced take on the "Great Firewall," arguing that for all its glaring imperfections and overregulation, China's internet still holds great promise for free speech — and perhaps even democracy.
The rise of Weibo and Baidu, Anti argues, have given the Chinese populace a newfound voice, while fostering an entire public sphere for more than 300 million of the country's netizens. And while government censors may keep a close eye on every tweet or blog post, the inherent complexity of the Chinese language makes it easier for internet users to disguise their communication in code words or obscure characters.
The centralized structure of China's internet has also fostered greater transparency at the local level, since the country's servers are under the exclusive control of Beijing and therefore inaccessible to municipal leaders. As Anti sees it, this "Chinanet" is more an incubator for democracy than a tool of the government, and over time, he hopes that more Chinese will "embrace freedom of speech and human rights as their birthright, not some imported American privilege."