Amherst Magazine

Electronic Blessings and Curses

By E.G.B.

Take two countries, China and Cuba, each under similar authoritarian rule. The Chinese state encourages citizens to use the Internet, albeit while blocking and monitoring content, while Cuba tries hard to keep people offline. What explains the difference?

Javier Corrales, associate professor of political science, and Frank Westhoff, the James E. Ostendarp Professor of Economics, have published an article that uses World Bank data to analyze Internet activity across nations since 1996. Among other things, the study confirms that authoritarian regimes in general discourage Internet use. What’s surprising, though, is that wealthier, more market- and trade-oriented totalitarian nations—such as China—behave differently: they are more likely to promote Internet use, as long as it is controlled and screened.

Corrales and Westhoff suspect that China views the Internet as both a blessing and a curse. The country clearly values economic growth and ties to the outside world, each of which the Internet makes possible. But at the same time, more uncensored information finds its way to the public. “They’re choosing to put up with the curse,” Westhoff says, “in order to get the blessings.”

In Cuba, however, Internet cafes are practically nonexistent, and laws block the purchase of hardware. To Corrales and Westhoff, Cuba seems to have no interest in the economic growth that widespread Internet use can provide. “There are no blessings from their perspective,” Westhoff says. “It’s only a curse.” The professors find a similar story in North Korea.

Corrales and Westhoff are quick to point out that China works hard to control the Internet, blocking Google searches, for example. A total ban wouldn’t work in China, the professors say, as many Chinese would have enough money to circumvent it, including by traveling to other countries. China also uses technology to listen in on its people, scanning e-mail for words such as Tibet. “This is a new model of authoritarian control,” Corrales believes. “It’s giving a new twist on repression.”

Drawing on findings about China, the professors conclude that the Internet does not automatically lead to better prospects for democratization. They explain that most Chinese people are grateful to simply surf the Web, and don’t really mind that certain sites are off-limits. “It’s a bargain,” Corrales says, “struck between state and citizens.”

Corrales and Westhoff published their study in December in International Studies Quarterly.