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The Washington Quarterly 25.3 (2002) 41-58



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The Internet and Power in One-Party East Asian States

Nina Hachigian


The Internet presents a dilemma to leaders of authoritarian states and illiberal democracies. It promises enticing commercial advantages, such as transaction cost reductions, e-commerce possibilities, and foreign trade facilitation. Yet, by giving citizens access to outside information and platforms for discussion and organization, the Internet can also help politically empower populations and potentially threaten regimes.

Contrary to popular assumption, the response to this dilemma is far from uniform—not all one-party states try to maximize their control of the Internet. 1 Leaders of one-party states use a wide variety of strategies to retain their power in the age of information technology (IT). In East Asia, North Korea and Myanmar fall at one end of the spectrum, severely restricting all public use of the Internet. Three countries—China, Vietnam, and Singapore—have adopted compromise strategies that moderately restrict access, content, or both. Malaysia lands at the other extreme, actively promoting IT and Internet access, permitting almost all online political content.

The debate between the determinists, who argue that the Internet will vanquish dictators, and the instrumentalists, who insist that authoritarian governments can control or even harness the Internet, frame many analyses of one-party states and IT. 2 Yet, this debate obscures an important question about why leaders of one-party states choose to employ certain strategies to address the political potential of the Internet. The subtle choices regimes make about how to treat the Internet are designed to reinforce their broader strategies for retaining power, and those choices do not predict regime viability in a clear way. Accounting for all the ways in which leaders retain power, one-party regimes that welcome the Internet are not more likely to [End Page 41] fail, based on that fact alone, than those that attempt to protect themselves from its influence.

The Conundrum of Information Technology

At a basic level, leaders maintain power through physical force and through various strategies of mental persuasion. 3 Among methods of mental persuasion, two are most important. One is a government's use of ideology and propaganda to convince a population of its generosity, effectiveness, and legitimacy. The ability to "structure the symbolic environment" in a way that leads citizens to accept a regime's political legitimacy is a key source of persuasive power that derives from information control. 4 Another method of persuasion involves providing material benefits to citizens who, in turn, will be inclined to view their government favorably. All states use a combination of physical and mental techniques. In liberal democracies, political leaders rely predominantly on persuasion—elections afford ruling parties legitimacy, while personal freedoms and frequently high standards of living satisfy citizens. Authorities physically contain those few who violently challenge the state. One-party states similarly use varying combinations of physical intimidation and methods of persuasion, often relying on careful information control.

Introducing the Internet to the general public changes a regime's ability to use physical power (or the threat of it) very little. Its introduction can, however, greatly affect a regime's persuasive power, based on information control or on the promise of material benefits. Changes in technology, such as the printing press, radio, TV, telephones, and fax machines, which allow control over information to seep to the people, can increase the difficulty of shaping public opinion through a consistent barrage of propaganda and an intolerance of alternative viewpoints. In a networked society, those hostile to a regime can acquire new capabilities because the Internet allows anonymous, fast, borderless, and relatively inexpensive communication. Academics can post critical articles and dissidents can organize. Curious Internet users may more readily uncover news about events in their own country on the Web. Virtual public spaces where many can communicate simultaneously can also be politically significant in a one-party state.

The ability to "grow the economy" and improve citizens' standards of living, the second critical way that many regimes retain power through persuasion, [End Page 42] can improve through the...

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