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Why Putin Isn?€™t Afraid of a Free Internet

Have you ever wondered why the Kremlin does not control the Internet as China does?

China surpasses Russia on every conceivable front. After Russia suffered more than any other country in the Group of 20 during the crisis, economists rallied to rename BRIC as BIC, while China overtook Germany to become the world’s largest exporter.

During 10 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, Russia collected more than $1.5 trillion selling oil and gas but didn’t build a single kilometer of new highway. In the same period, China built 5,000 to 6,000 kilometers of highways every year.

China is also the world leader in building nuclear power plants. It produces more wind energy than any other country. Most of the world’s computers are assembled in China, and China has become the world’s largest market for automobiles.

At the same time, China maintains far tighter control over the media than Russia does. A new Great Wall cuts off the Chinese Internet from the world. The scope of misinformation spewed out by China surpasses the wildest dreams of Russia’s state-controlled Channel One television. For example, official Chinese propaganda claims that students attacked soldiers on Tiananmen Square.

Chinese authorities initially encouraged the quasi-religious Falun Gong sect, but when its membership outnumbered that of the Communist Party, they ruthlessly cracked down on the movement. The followers of Falun Gong are probably just as crazy as any other sect, but they are peaceful and have never been prohibited in other countries.

In contrast to China’s Communist Party, the Kremlin has nothing to brag about, so why doesn’t it enact tighter controls of the Internet to cover up negligence, incompetence and abuses?

The answer is that those 700 million peasants who play a crucial role in China’s modernization and economic boom are also the power base for any potential mass uprising. China’s ruling party is afraid that free speech on the Internet could cause the spark that mobilizes the peasants, transforming them into a huge and dangerous social force — just like a peaceful atom, which, under the right conditions, can unleash a nuclear blast.

But Putin doesn’t face this danger at all. Russia’s equivalent to the Chinese peasant is the archetypal Vanya the tractor driver. Vanya has been drinking for the past 30 years and uses his tractor mainly to get to the local store to buy another bottle of vodka, not to work his plot of land.

In contrast, the typical Chinese peasant is prepared to work, eat and sleep at the factory for five years straight to save up a few thousand dollars to open his own little kiosk selling fruit or other goods. Vanya the tractor driver will never vote for a liberal opposition candidate, nor will he take part in a protest or rebellion. Deep in his soul, he understands that he doesn’t deserve anything more in life than his beloved bottle of vodka.

The Communist Party of China is not worried about the occasional journalist or member of a sect who gains access to a free Internet, but it is deeply worried about the hundreds of millions of people who could be mobilized by these ideas and take their protests to the streets.

Putin, however, has absolutely nothing to fear. He knows that no storm raging over the Internet in reaction to the latest police shooting of innocent people can ever drive Vanya and the millions like him out of their constant state of inertia and onto the streets.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

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