Sunday, April 7, 2013

Italy's experience with Internet policy is seen as a caution to China

Beppe Grillo
Beppe Grillo (Photo credit: Niccolò Caranti)
SINOGRAPH Italy's Internet politics menace China
While online debate in China represents a potential training ground for future democratic dialogue, the dangers of Internet politics can be seen in the rise of Italy's "5 Star Movement". The prevailing voices in Beppe Grillo's movement are those most active on the web, and they post the most barbed comments. Such chaotic, volcanic politics only lead masses to seek radical leaders. - Francesco Sisci (Apr 3, '13)

BEIJING - It is, if you will, the usual tale of two countries: one very large and one quite small; one overpopulated, one mid-sized; one eager to succeed, the other timid. Both are old civilizations; pizza, noodle, and rice eaters; superstitious; and fond of firecrackers, Marco Polo, art, and good food. Yes, the countries are China and Italy, bound now in a strange manner by respective - and independent - recent political and social developments. 

Italy over the past century was a staging ground for experiments with new political solutions that had global consequences. Fascism was born in Italy in the 1920s, although it also flourished elsewhere and caused the start of World War II. In the 1970s, the Italian pro-Soviet Communist Party supported coalition governments that included pro-American parties, showing that communism could be adapted to a democratic environment. Thus, it inspired reforms in Gorbachev's USSR some years later, something that led to the collapse of communism in Europe altogether. 

One then wonders whether the new Italian political entity the "5 Star Movement", created by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, will also lead to something else - and what that could be. The "5 Star Movement" scored a huge success in the recent Italian elections while refusing to reach out to voters through talks and debates on TV, the traditional means of political campaigning for the past five decades. 

It canvassed votes by means of old-fashioned public meetings and by modern web chats and Tweets shot through the Internet and mobile phones. He and his followers explained that this is the new web democracy. In fact, there is something extremely modern in Grillo's political movement. Certainly, US President Barack Obama understood the importance of the web and relied on songs spread on Facebook and Twitter slogans. But he still went on TV and engaged in all the traditional campaign activities. 

Grillo, conversely, refused TV appearances, political debates, and even interviews in the Italian press, and this magnified his image, bringing him almost 25% of the vote. The Internet is and was the ground for internal debates. Candidates were selected through mock elections on the web among Grillo's supporters; policy discussions were held in web chats rather than in smoky rooms. There were no meetings, no cells, and no steering committees. 

Actually, this is not the only new element of Grillo's party. Contrary to all past practices, Grillo and his main partner, Gianroberto Casalegno, chose not to run for parliament. Notwithstanding that, these two extra-parliamentary leaders control all their elected deputies in parliament through a series of binding agreements. Meanwhile, the few top leaders decide the party line in informal gatherings on phone calls. It may not sound good - the party looks more like a private entity than an organization to promote political change and effective popular participation - but it has so far provided an organization that works similar to, if not better than, the old party systems. 

That is, Grillo's party organized only over the Internet, without any of the traditional trappings of old fashioned politics. Then this kind of association could also be possible in any country where traditional party organizations are forbidden, but the Internet and telecommunications are highly developed - so why not China? 

Certainly, Beijing has long spotted the potentially disruptive dangers of organizing over the Internet, especially thanks to the warnings of the so far ill-fated "jasmine revolutions" in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. China learned that uprisings in Xinjiang and Tibet were made possible by Internet networking, and thus it decided not to close or forbid the web but to manage it, through a series of controls preventing major protests. 

However, the Bo Xilai case has shown that the party is now vulnerable not only to opposition from outside (for instance, pro-independence protests in Xinjiang or Tibet) but also to challenges to the present leadership from within. Party members dissatisfied with the current policies, yet not "anti-revolutionary'', may cluster in web chats, groups, and networks organized via popular Chinese social websites, such as QQ, Wechat, or even Taobao. 

Here political, social, and economic debates are so widespread and pervasive that they are impossible to check. Then the policy so far has been, wisely, to let these debates surface more or less unhindered in order to make the opposition clear and thus provide a warning to the leadership of possible dangers. These dangers can be in policies that need to be adjusted or in people who should to be recruited into the leadership or sidelined. 

In a way, then, these web debates in China are becoming the training ground for greater democratic political debate, even without open debates on TV or in newspapers, which remain quite conservative compared to the web. Here the party leadership, party members, and common people are learning to engage with one another and to feel engaged in the country and its policy. Thus they all start to develop a wider sense of belonging, or guishugan (see Xi has to get the party started, Asia Times Online, December 22, 2012). 

But in Grillo's experience there are other elements that may be worrisome for China or any other country experimenting with web democracy. In the Grillo experience, one can see that the prevailing voices of the movement are the ones most active on the web, posting the most in chats, the most vocal, and the ones with the most barbed comments. 

In a way, it is the same situation one sees in the emergence of leadership in a crowd, as literature Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti noted in his classic Masses and Power. In its chaotic, ebullient, lava-like form, the masses find their leader among the most extreme, radical, spirited people and discard, reject, and even destroy the most reasonable, cooler minds. 

This is evident in Grillo's rhetoric, which is full of irony, jokes, and extravagant remarks, which the reader doesn't know whether to take at face value or not. There is no cold analysis or clear proposals, but sloganeering meant to stir emotions for revolutionary times-and not to rule a country. This language is similar to the Cultural Revolution-style labeling one can find in many Chinese chat rooms, where people call each other names rather than dissect the arguments and offering solutions to the many issues of the country. 

In China, public rhetoric seems not to have evolved since the time of the Cultural Revolution, and it is pervading the spirit of many public intellectuals who believe, like during the Cultural Revolution, that the only a revolutionary can be a critic of the government and that the present status quo must be toppled. It may be true or not, but this is actually contrary to the experience of the past three decades, which have proved the value of and positive results from incremental reforms. 

Yet the beliefs of these Chinese intellectuals come from the communist tradition, which disregards the impact of reforms on change - and China is ruled by a party that calls itself communist. Meanwhile, reforms, which have been the instruments of government and change in Beijing for the past 30 years, are considered the only means for change in capitalist countries, which openly oppose communism and its revolution. There is a lot of irony here, and much room for improvement. 

Then, in a way, to eliminate the latent revolutionary danger of so much of the Internet rhetoric, which works with the logic of an ebullient crowd, the current ruling party has to clearly separate from the legacy of its communist revolutionary roots. The spirit of this was in fact evident for centuries to the Chinese: the rules and the rhetoric needed to gain power (traditionally by leading a peasant uprising, as did Liu Bang, founder of the Han dynasty, and Mao Zedong) cannot be the same rules and the rhetoric used to hold on power. These elements are clear to China, as Beijing is clear about taking seriously the Internet and its political leverage on domestic decision-making. 

This brings us back to Italy. If the path for future reforms is roughly clear in China, it is not clear at all in Italy, where nobody so far has been able to control the snowball effect of Grillo/the Internet on Italian politics. Nobody has challenged Grillo on his home turf, the Internet, and nobody has challenged him on his revolutionary rhetoric, either by carrying out some of the reasonable reforms he proposes (cut the huge costs of Italian politics) or by disputing some of his demagoguery (a minimum wage for "being a citizen'', a measure that could rot the core of Italian economy). 

Then with or without Grillo, the yearning for revolution is growing in Italy. The social and economic fabric of the country is certainly too strong to suggest a real revolution in Italy. With about five million small and medium enterprises, over 80% of the people owning at least one house, and menial jobs granted to second-class citizens (some two million foreign immigrants with little or no rights), there is just nobody who really wants to turn the country upside-down. But that doesn't mean there are no aspirations for dramatic change, and so far only Grillo has been able to give a voice and a shape to this aspiration, as the national economy is spiraling down and making everything worse. 

Here, there is no clear path ahead. Nobody is clear about what Grillo wants to do if he gets power; possibly he himself doesn't know. Nobody is clear about the crawling impact economic crises in Cyprus and Slovenia could have on the weak political balance in Italy and thus on the overall solidity of the euro. 

This makes the situation in Italy highly critical for everybody, and yet it is hard to intervene and know what the future holds for the country while revolutionary winds grow stronger. 

Here again China is different. Whereas the leadership is strong and setting long-term goals for the next 10 or 20 years, its society is and feels weak. Most people have a home or a piece of land (over 80% of the population), but these are rights recently acquired, and many people still feel uncertain about them. Many have made money, but anti-corruption campaigns have been routing out many because of political allegiances to this or that party boss. Many with money have therefore been fleeing the country and feel uncertain about their fortunes. 

Meanwhile, others are coming in, elbowing their way through the ones who are leaving. Plus, social, cultural, and ethical values are changing at a fast pace, so that one generation feels its values are no longer valid for the next one, and within just a few years, there is little or nothing to pass on. These elements create an unstable group of business  leaders and also an unstable basis for social and moral interaction. In politics, there are fierce power struggles, but it is all hidden, making it difficult for anybody to gauge or check, and also making it difficult to predict how one should set sails for business opportunities. 

In other words, Chinese society is unstable as the leadership tries to show steadiness. And thus it is true, if the leadership were to split, the whole country would tremble and shake. But then again, if the leadership stays united, the mass of society will move ahead. 

Nothing like this is clear in Italy. Grillo could well steer Italy out of the euro and thus start a breakdown of the currency and a global financial crisis with unpredictable implications. 

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is  (posted with his permission)

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