The Internet and Power in One-Party East Asian States

by Nina Hachigian

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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. 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 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. 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 fail, based on that fact alone, than those that attempt to protect themselves from its influence.

Originally published in: The Washington Quarterly, v. 25, no. 3, Summer 2002, pp. 41-58.

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