China Internet crackdowns ‘send online chill’

Chinas new Internet restrictions requiring that Internet users provide their real names to register has triggered “heated discussion” amongst the country’s netizens, according to reports.

“Since the party congress, we’ve seen increased measures, not lessened,” Stanford University’s Duncan Clark told VOA China. “So the big question … is, when we get to the spring of next year, when the new leadership takes up the formal positions in the new government, is this the new normal?”

The regime’s tightening of internet controls and mandating real name registration threaten the security and privacy of internet users, Human Rights Watch said today:

On December 28, 2012, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislative body, passed the “Decision to Strengthen the Protection of Online Information.” …This decision follows a series of high-profile corruption exposés that were widely discussed online, despite government efforts to control media coverage, as well as increased use of social media to mobilize citizen action. For example, weibo users and bloggers became important watchdogs in revealing corruption and governmental cover-up attempts in the wake of the July 2011 Wenzhou high-speed train crash. In addition, companies that provide virtual private networks (VPNs) that circumvent China’s “Great Firewall” have also reported expanded interference with the use of their services. VPNs can allow users to secure their communications over an internet connection. Businesses, journalists, and ordinary users rely on VPNs to encrypt internet traffic and evade China’s filtering system.

“These new mandates send a chilling message to China’s netizens,” said Cynthia Wong, the group’s senior researcher on the internet and human rights. “The government’s decision is an effort to silence critics and curb anonymity online by further conscripting internet companies to monitor and censor users.”

China Digital Times cites reports that the website of Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine, a liberal publication that published a pro-reform New Year greeting, was shut down on Friday morning:

The magazine’s official account on Sina Weibo, a Twitter style Chinese social media platform, posted at 10.08am, said the site was “suddenly cancelled” around 9am. It said they received text messages and emails from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on December 31, telling them the site had been cancelled….After clicking the site’s URL on Friday, internet users see a notice saying: “the website you are visiting has been shut down for not registering”.

“Several influential Chinese bloggers, activists and even a popular cartoonist had their online microblogging accounts shut down in recent days, belying the hopes of many here that the country’s new Communist Party leaders might begin to relax strict controls over the Internet and free expression,” the Washington Post’s Keith Richburg reports:

Another microblogger who uses satire to tackle sensitive topics is the cartoonist Kuang Biao, who said he publishes most of his work online. …

“I guess my political cartoons (above) made them unhappy,” Kuang said. “I just can’t figure out why they are even afraid of cartoons. They lack confidence and don’t have any sense of humor.” Kuang said his cartoons mainly satirized official policy pronouncements and the well-documented misbehavior of some Communist Party officials.

In light of China’s media crackdown, the U.S. State Department should both address the treatment of American reporters in China and assess its current approach to Chinese reporters in the US, argues The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos:

Why is this happening now? At bottom, it’s a curious confluence of skill, corruption, and record-keeping. Twenty years ago, most foreign correspondents made their bones on exotic front lines, and rarely ventured into the wilds of business reporting until they came home. But these days the ranks of the foreign press include a number of people who came up reading 10-Ks and bond prospectuses and have the instinct to deploy those skills abroad. At the same time, the increasing sophistication of China’s economy has forced the bureaucracy to create a body of records that, if deciphered correctly, can provide a roadmap of relationships that no human source could easily match. And finally, the scale of corruption in China has grown right along with the economy, creating a target-rich environment.

The crackdown also follows a hike in Chinese netizens’ willingness to speak out on Tibetan self-immolations, says Human Rights in China.

China’s efforts to tighten the reigns on the Internet “could chill some of the vibrant discourse on the country’s Twitter-like microblogs,” says one observer.

The crackdown comes shortly after Rendezvous Asia Blogger Mark McDonald reported on the Communist authorities’ efforts to fortify the Great Firewall, “blocking some of the leading services that allow people on the mainland to access forbidden sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.”

See the discussion that ensued, much of it, from China residents who use virtual private networks or VPNs to access the wider Web.

“Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili are better known to history by the pseudonyms under which they led the Bolshevik Revolution—pen names that served them well as agitators under the czars. No wonder the ostensibly communist party still ruling in Beijing is so acutely attuned to the dangers of anonymous scribbling,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph Sternberg. “Call it Zuckerberg’s Revenge.”

The clampdown has dampened expectations that the new leadership “might be more tolerant of weibo’s burgeoning free speech forum, as they try to cultivate a more popular image for a party buffeted by corruption scandals and tales of power abuses at the highest levels,” says the Post’s Richburg:

“The hope for that kind of openness was less based on any kind of evidence and more based on hope,” said Bill Bishop, a longtime China resident who publishes the Sinocism online newsletter on current political, economic and social news.

Despite the new leaders’ recent remarks about economic reform, Bishop said, “there’s nothing in there about loosening their restrictions on the Internet.”

“I do think you’re going to see some pretty aggressive measures on economic reform,” Bishop said. “You’ve got a party that believes in pursuing economic reform without comparable political reform.”

“Social media has become an incredible tool for public accountability in China, but these new controls certainly undermine that potential,” Wong said. “If the government is serious about fighting rampant corruption, it shouldn’t silence whistleblowers and ordinary citizens, or enlist companies to do it on their behalf. Instead, it should allow people to speak out and to protect their identities online.”

China Digital Times and Human Rights in China are grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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After Chávez?

What happens if Venezuela’s populist president dies?

“Here’s what the Bolivarian constitution is clear about, if Chávez dies before Jan. 10, then a new presidential election has to be held within 30 days, and during that time the National Assembly President ‘shall take charge of the presidency of the republic,’” writes Time’s Tim Padgett:

Should Chávez somehow be able to return to Venezuela to be sworn in on Jan. 10 but dies during the first four years of his new term, a new election still has to be held within 30 days, but this time his Vice President [Nicolás Maduro - far left] becomes President during the interregnum. Should Chávez die during the last two years of the term, then the Vice President simply completes the term’s lame-duck remainder.

If the Bolivarian succession process sounds convoluted, analysts say it’s meant to be. It keeps the Vice President post relatively weak and therefore discourages any challenge to Chávez’s authoritarian rule from within his United Socialist Party (PSUV) while he’s alive; but it aids the continuance of his left-wing, anti-U.S. revolution if he dies by giving the opposition a paltry 30 days to mount an election campaign.

Still, what Chávez may not have expected, says Stephen Johnson, Americas director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., is that the scenario would play out “at a moment precisely like this one,” when the opposition does have a viable candidate — Henrique Capriles, the centrist governor of Miranda state adjoining Caracas — ready to hit the trail again after a relatively respectable effort against Chávez in October.

The January 10 deadline “really matters,” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College. “The moment that you enter into the idea that people can just easily change the inauguration date, you are essentially governing outside of the constitution,” he said. “You are essentially abandoning the democracy.”

Constitutional lawyer Jose Vicente Haro told CNN en Espanol that the inauguration must occur on that day and cannot occur inside the embassy in Cuba because “it is not Venezuelan territory.”

Ultimately, Venezuela’s Supreme Court could be asked to decide, said Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center. If Chávez has not returned to Venezuela and is unable to be sworn in on January 10, the National Assembly may be forced to act…. The lawmakers may have no choice but to either declare Chávez permanently absent, which would result in the national assembly president taking over, or temporarily absent. 

Whoever succeeds Chávez will inherit an incipient economic crisis that will limit their room for political maneuver, analysts suggest.

“Chávez has bequeathed the nation an economic crisis of historic proportions,” writes Moisés Naím, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Oil-exporting countries rarely face hard currency shortages, but the Chávez regime may be the exception. Mismanagement and lack of investment have decreased oil production. Meanwhile oil revenue is compromised partly because of Chávez’s decision to supply Venezuelans with the country’s most valuable resource at heavily subsidized prices. Thus a large and growing share of locally produced oil is sold domestically at the lowest prices in the world (in Venezuela it costs 25 cents to fill the tank of a mid-sized car).

“Another share of the oil output is shipped abroad to Cuba and other Chávez allies, and to China, which bought oil in advance at deeply discounted prices (apparently the revenue from China has already been spent),” writes Naím, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy and former minister of Trade and Industry for Venezuela.

The economic crisis is likely to require a period of austerity that will generate a political backlash against Chávez’s successor.

“It’s doubtful that Nicolás Maduro will be able to handle the fury of Venezuelans who fear that their beloved leader’s memory might be betrayed by heartless neoliberalism,” argues Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan political scientist, and founder of Caracas Chronicles:

It’s been a wildly popular and successful strategy, but this kind of spending-led “socialism can’t last. For years, Venezuela has been borrowing at credit-card level interest rates. As the country runs out of money and out of people willing to lend it more, the real question is who’s going to be left holding the checkbook when the spending must screech to a halt?

Chávez recently named Maduro, his vice-president and foreign minister, as his chosen heir.

“Many analysts see a potential rift inside Chávismo between Maduro’s more socialist faction and that of the more pragmatic Cabello, who has particularly strong ties to the military and is expected to be re-elected as National Assembly President,” says Padgett:

But George Ciccariello-Maher, a history and politics professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of an upcoming book, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, says Maduro would most likely secure both the PSUV candidacy and a victory over Capriles. “He’s more popular with the Venezuelan grassroots than either Cabello or Capriles,” he says.

Chávez’s death is also likely to be a blow for his authoritarian populist allies in the region, say observers.

The Bolivarian Alliance – a Chávez brainchild forged to assert regional claims to policy autonomy during the Bush era — is likely to take the strongest hit,” according to Anita Isaacs, a political science professor at Haverford College:

Whereas Venezuela’s relationship with Cuba can be seen as mutually beneficial, there is no similar upside to pouring millions of dollars into other corrupt regimes like those in Ecuador and Nicaragua. Moreover, the pragmatic bloc of Latin American nations led by Brazil offers an increasingly viable alternative to the alliance. 

Still, the prospect of armed conflict in Venezuela is real and should not be underestimated. Should political violence ensue, all bets are off on the Latin American front. Rather than play a productive role in the region Venezuela could arouse regional fears of a destabilizing spillover of violence, becoming instead the target of efforts at containment and peace-making.

“Chávez is known for strutting on the international stage, playing bad boy to the United States,” writes Ray Walser, a senior policy analyst specializing in Latin America at the Heritage Foundation:

The Ahmadinejads, Castros and Ortegas of our world could count on a hero’s welcome in Caracas, along with a replica of the Great Liberator’s sword. Saddled with serious problems — and lacking the charisma — Chávez’s heir will probably be hard-pressed to cast the same giant Bolivarian shadow over the international landscape.

Maduro’s succession would reassure these allies as he would likely maintain the thrust of Chávez’s foreign policy, according to Patrick Duddy, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010:

Although Maduro has often echoed Chávez’s own antipathy toward the U.S., he has recently indicated a theoretical willingness to consider repairing relations with the U.S and, according some news reports, has discussed the possibility with Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Any rapprochement, however, is likely to be narrow and fraught with tension.

The succession crisis could create opportunities for Venezuela’s democratic opposition and civil society, analysts suggest.

“If the opposition takes over, its members should move gradually,” says Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue:

An unwavering commitment to social programs — the popular “misiones” — will be vital, as will pursuing badly needed economic and security reforms. Similarly, a new government should not entirely jettison Chávez’s foreign policy from one day to the next, but should move in a piecemeal fashion. Moderation should steadily fill in for Chávez’s charisma and grandiosity.

“The path forward will require modest, incremental changes and compromise on both sides of a sharply polarized society,” says Shifter, a former Latin America program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy. “Otherwise, there could be a societal backlash, and the prospects for political comity and mending the social fabric will be at risk.”

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Models of Muckraking: Supporting Investigative Journalism

Investigative journalism has spread rapidly around the world in the past decade. Despite onerous laws and legal and physical attacks on reporters, it has found a footing even in repressive countries.  Journalists have helped hold corrupt leaders accountable, documented human rights violations, and exposed systematic abuses in developing and transitioning countries, as noted in a forthcoming CIMA report, Investigative Reporting in Emerging Democracies: Models, Challenges, and Lessons Learned.

The field’s emphasis on public accountability and adherence to high standards has attracted the attention of international donors, who see it as an important force in promoting the rule of law and democratization. In spite of this attention, investigative reporting receives inadequate support—only two percent of global media development funding by major donors, according to Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support, a newly revised and expanded report from CIMA.

Join a discussion to examine the field’s key drivers and actors and discuss ways to best support and professionalize the practice in developing and transitioning countries.

The Center for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy invite you to a panel discussion on

Models of Muckraking: Supporting Investigative Journalism Around the World

Featuring:

Sheila Coronel @SheilaCoronel Columbia University

David E. Kaplan @gijn Global Investigative Journalism Network

Drew Sullivan @DrewOCCRP Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 11:00 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. (Lunch served after 12:30 p.m.)

1025 F Street, NW, Suite 800 Washington, D.C. 20004

Sheila Coronelis the director of the Stabile Center for Investigative journalism and professor of Professional Practice at Columbia University. In 1989, Coronel and her colleagues founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism to promote investigative reporting. Under her leadership, the Center became the premier investigative reporting institution in the Philippines and Asia.

David E. Kaplan is director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, an association of more than 70 organizations in 35 countries dedicated to the support of investigative reporting. Kaplan served as editor of Empowering Independent Media in 2008 and 2012, published by CIMA.

Drew Sullivan is a journalist, editor, and media development specialist who has spent the last decade working with news media in emerging democracies. He is the founder of the non-profit Journalism Development Network. He is the author of a 2010 CIMA report, Libel Tourism: Silencing the Press through Transnational Legal Threats, as well as the upcoming report, Investigative Reporting in Emerging Democracies: Models, Challenges, and Lessons Learned.

Register here.

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Political Change and the Next Generation

A front row seat in observing the changes in post-Communist Europe over the past two decades allowed the National Endowment for Democracy’s Nadia Diuk to draw some conclusions on political change, transition, youth, and identity for her recently published book on The Next Generation in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.

One of the reasons why I started to study youth and generational change was because of my interest in transition and political change.  How do government’s change?  In democratic countries we see a transparent process of citizens voting for their representatives in elections and holding them accountable through democratic institutions of a democracy, including a free press and an independent judiciary.  In authoritarian states, leadership changes are conducted through a process that is often opaque and hard to discern.  The end result usually entails the leader appointing his (and it usually is “his”) successor.  Or sometimes there is a military takeover, or an inside “palace” coup, and occasionally there will be a revolution that brings in a new government.  But even when these “revolutions” take place, as we have seen in the past decade, we are never certain that the system will be changed and that no other dictator will ever emerge to take the place of the one just deposedThe only element that we do know for sure, the one element that makes political change inevitable—is the progress of generations. 

I would like us to question the notion that youth programs should train “future leaders” and that “youth politics” are preparation for entering the adult world of politics.  The median age in Kosovo is 27; it is a very young country, so it seems appropriate that many of the politicians here should also be from a younger generation.  

Kosovo and the Western Balkan region overall are going through what Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi has referred to as a “moussaka of transitions.”  Four such transitions relate directly to this region and to regions such as the former Soviet Union, which also went through the challenge of multiple transitions. 

The first transition is in the political system—the transition from authoritarianism or communism to democracy.  Even though many of you will not remember life under communism, you may recognize some of the trends in the way young people were treated as common in any state where democratic norms have not yet take root.  In a dictatorship, it is the young who are often pushed aside and kept away from the real business of politics.  When an elite has entrenched itself in power, there is often little space for innovation or for young people to move up the political ladder. 

Often these elites, or the dictator in some cases, will claim that they know what is best for all citizens.  Instead of being able to participate freely in the political process, young people become the “object” of politics.  Politics is defined and organized for them.  In many of the post-communist countries of the former Soviet Union the remnants of this system may be seen in the way “youth politics” is formed—usually by older officials—through the establishment of a Ministry for Youth (often included into the same office as Culture and Sport).  In order to take part in politics young people may have to compromise their ideals to receive the support of the establishment. 

In the past decade we have seen how idealistic young people have led protest movements that have brought down governments—in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Egypt.  But often, when the protests have subsided and the young people have packed up their tents and gone home, the old system reasserts itself and the older more seasoned politicians come back—and the ideals and aspirations that brought the young people out onto the streets are lost. 

There are still some countries where the ruling elite takes advantage of the energy and enthusiasm of young people to create youth movements in support of the ruling power, as in Russia, with the youth group Nashi

In some countries, it is not only an older generation in government that wants to hang on to power;  opposition leaders sometimes stay in place for years, preventing younger people from moving up into leadership positions in opposition political parties and movements.  Democratic rotation should apply to these parties as well as to pro-government parties and bureaucracies.  

The second transition for Kosovo and for this region as a whole has been to navigate the road from a planned economy to a free market.  The system of “worker’s self-management” in old Yugoslavia operated essentially as a command economy run by the Communist Party.  As with any economy that is reforming it is often the young people who are hit the hardest, with youth experiencing the highest levels of unemployment.  For this reason young people should be involved in economic reform so as not to be left out of the equation.  The transition to a free market economy should involve and be responsive to the needs of young people who are the work-force that will be the engine of economic success over the long term. 

The third transition particularly relevant for this part of the world is the challenge of coping with the consequences and healing in a post-conflict society.  Again, young people are perhaps in the best position to take the lead.  Moving on from a brutal, recent past that has claimed the lives of many innocent victims is a very hard process to accomplish; while the past and its lessons should never be forgotten, young people stand the best chance of getting beyond the strictures the past can sometimes impose, holding future generations captive to prejudices that prevent a positive resolution of problems. 

The fourth transition is closely connected to the previous one—forging a new national identity as part of the challenge of establishing an independent state.  The struggle for independent statehood for Kosovo is recent enough for many young people in this room to have experienced directly.  The process of building an independent state starts with the creation of new national institutions but it also includes the creation of a new national identity.  What kind of identity should Kosovo have and what kind of political culture will sustain and support independent Kosovo moving forward? 

These are questions for young people to decide.  Young people are in the best position to make it happen—you can imagine what kind of country you want Kosovo to be and work toward realizing that vision in the future.  And that future begins now; every action you take now is a building block toward the future you are aiming to achieve.

Nadia Diuk is vice president for programs, Africa, Central Europe and Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and author of The Next Generation in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan: Youth, Politics, Identity, and Change.

The above extract is taken from a speech to the Prishtina Youth Summit in Kosovo, Albania, December 14th-16th 2012.

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Economy is Iran’s Achilles Heel

For Iran, 2013 could be one of the most challenging years—both at home and in relations with the outside world—since the 1979 revolution, writes Alireza Nader. But it’s the economy that is now the Islamic Republic’s Achilles Heel.

The Islamic Republic faces the potential of stronger economic sanctions and even an Israeli and/or U.S. military strike because of its intransigence in complying with U.N. resolutions on its nuclear program.

But the world’s only modern theocracy also must deal with twin domestic challenges—deepening malaise among the young and increasing tensions among the political elite. Both could be important factors in the presidential election scheduled for June 14, which will feature a new slate of candidates since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will have served the two-term limit. Home-grown problems could outweigh the regime’s foreign policy woes.

The Nuclear Controversy

Iran and the world’s major powers have all indicated an interest in a new round of diplomatic talks in 2013 to end the long standoff over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.

Khamenei is not easily swayed by pressure. He has survived imprisonment and lived through the revolution, assassination attempts, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, popular uprisings, and decades of sanctions. He views Iran’s uranium enrichment program not only as a natural and legal right, but also a measure of Tehran’s success against the United States. Tehran also spins the so-called Arab Spring as an “Islamic awakening” modeled on its own Islamic revolution.

Despite what he says publicly, however, Khamenei is also savvy enough to know that the same political changes represent new challenges for his regime as well. Syrian President Bashar Assad, Tehran’s most important Arab ally, is under siege from a protest movement that turned into a surprisingly powerful military campaign.

The Economy

Iran begins 2013 with growing economic woes that may be an important calculation in Khamenei’s decision. He needs tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues to maintain a vast and often loyal network that has maintained his rule as Iran’s ultimate leader for the past 23 years. But the world’s toughest sanctions, soaring inflation, and the plummeting value of Iran’s currency produced the perfect economic storm in 2012.

Iran’s oil exports declined by as much as one-half in 2012, a factor that could produce additional pressure from key Khamenei constituents, including the Bazaar merchant class and the powerful Revolutionary Guards.

But chronic mismanagement is the chief cause of Iran’s economic problems. After his 2005 election, President Ahmadinejad eliminated economic planning agencies, sidelined skilled technocrats who were not politically loyal to him and fueled inflation by injecting cash into the economy and reducing subsidies.

Corruption across the regime has contributed to the economic crisis. In 2012, the Islamic Republic was perceived as one of the most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. The Revolutionary Guards, which control large parts of the economy, has charitable foundations (bonyads) that are tax-exempt and largely free of government scrutiny. The Guards have also been linked to illicit smuggling and narcotics trafficking. Some veteran officers have reportedly amassed significant wealth.

Presidential Election

The Islamic Republic begins 2013 with anxiety among both the public and the government over the impending presidential election. The 2009 election produced the deepest political schism since the revolution, with millions turning out in massive popular protests across the country to challenge the official outcome. It gave birth to the opposition Green Movement and created an enduring crisis of legitimacy for the Supreme Leader.

The 2013 election may be more tightly scripted than any earlier presidential race to prevent serious debates or competition.

In December 2012, the Iranian parliament passed legislation requiring all candidates to have the endorsement of more than 100 of the regime’s “experts” and to be between the ages of 40 and 75. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who has long been Khamenei’s main political rival and a focus of hardline ire, is 78 years old. He ran again in 2005 against Ahmadinejad, but lost. He is excluded from running again.

Other potential challengers also appear to be sidelined—at least for now. Among them is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is Ahmadinejad’s ally and in-law. (Their children are married.) Khamenei loyalists have called him a “deviant” threat to the clergy and the Supreme Leader.

The spectrum of rivals reflects the unprecedented divisions. All were among the early revolutionaries who ousted the shah and hung together for more than a decade. Ahmadinejad, a hardliner who had Khamenei’s full endorsement just four years ago, is now perceived as a threat to the Supreme Leader’s hold on power.

But the most important challenge to the regime may still come from the Green Movement. Its symbolic leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are under house arrest but they remain a potent threat to Khamenei’s rule, perhaps even more than an Israeli military strike or U.S. sanctions.

This is an edited extract of commentary that originally appeared in United States Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer on January 2, 2013. RTWT

Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a lecturer on Iranian politics at the George Washington University.

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