Foreign Policy Blogs

The power of new technology

There is a muted but ongoing debate about whether a country can be democratic and fight corruption at the same time (see Success stories). A related debate concerns economic development. Thus, can the undemocratic Chinese government achieve the economic growth it aspires to without increasing accountability? Some people hold up China’s stellar performance as evidence that it need not, while others allege that its growth would be greater still if it were to change its political system.

This month Rajesh Tandon, a prominent civil society leader from India, spoke at the closing of the International Society for Third-Sector Research conference. In response to a question from the audience, Tandon argued that it is no longer possible to have economic development without democracy because of the availability of information. For example, the ease of sending images by cell phone has made international news out of events like the Chinese crackdown on Uighur protesters last year, whereas ten years ago it is unlikely anyone but locals would have known what happened. Moreover, cell phones as well as the internet can help organize social movements demanding accountability in places that were once able to silence all opposition.

All this is true. But I fear that the world’s tyrants are more resilient than this suggests. New technology may empower ordinary people, but they are not the only ones with access. Those in power, whether in China, Guinea, or Saudi Arabia, have both the incentive and the resources to out-maneuver their opponents. New technology is the playground of the young and agile, neither of which generally characterize authoritarian bureaucracies… but they can learn, both from their opponents and from each other, in the same way A.Q. Khan spread nuclear secrets around the world.

For example, what happens now that millions of people saw videos of Chinese police beating Uighurs: Has treatment improved, or has the Chinese government simply wakened to the need to repress in a lower-profile manner? When was the last time you heard about the Uighurs anyway?

In face of this, those of us fighting for governments that better serve their people must not become complacent. We have a head start right now, and we have to be careful not to squander it. Keeping on the cutting edge, developing continually new strategies, and thinking outside the box are the tools of the information age. With these, the collective brainpower of average citizens is far greater than their oppressors’.

New technology is indeed a democratizing force, but only if it is channeled effectively will it fall into the right hands.