The Washington Post is reporting that the U.S. State Department is giving 1.5 million dollars to an internet freedom group tied to Falun Gong:
“The State Department has decided to fund a group run mainly by practitioners of Falun Gong, a Buddhist-like sect long considered Enemy No. 1 by the Chinese government, to provide software to skirt Internet censorship across the globe.
State Department officials recently called the group, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, offering it $1.5 million, according to Shiyu Zhou, one of the group’s founders. A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the offer.
The decision, which came as the United States and China have recently moved to improve ties after months of tension, appears likely to irritate Beijing just as the two are set to resume a dialogue on human rights Wednesday for the first time in two years.”
Indeed, this decision comes at a pretty terrible time. Furthermore, I have a hard time understanding why the government would choose a Falun Gong-affiliated group when there are plenty of groups1 out there fighting for internet freedom that aren’t directly affiliated with a cult the Chinese government hates. I’m all for internet freedom and for breaking through the GFW, but why does the State Department feel they need to hand Beijing an excuse to dismiss the concept wholesale by associating it with Falun Gong?
Regardless of your feelings about whether FLG is an “evil cult”, there is no reason whatsoever to give a ton of money to an FLG-affiliated group unless you’re intentionally trying to piss off Beijing. Is this yet another effort by the Obama administration to show that they’re not going to be soft on China? If so, it’s deeply misguided, and they probably made that point with the arms sale to Taiwan, etc. anyway.
Granted, the concept itself is a bit antagonistic — developing software to ensure Chinese people can circumvent the GFW — but it’s the kind of foreign antagonism plenty of Chinese netizens could get behind, especially those who haven’t yet figured out how to jump the GFW but are interested in it2. By connecting the software with FLG, the State Department is virtually guaranteeing a polemic response from the Chinese government, but let’s be honest, that’s probably going to happen anyway. The difference is that this approach is also sure to piss off plenty of Chinese netizens who might otherwise support it.
Other than the fact that it’s unnecessarily antagonistic, the group (GIFC) also uses its software to promote Falun Gong (“Falun Gong also put ads encouraging people to join the sect on its software download page.”3) In essence, then, the State Department is funding a vein, albeit a somewhat indirect one, for Falun Gong propaganda. This is a pretty unnecessary violation of the separation of church and state — not that the US government doesn’t do that for plenty of other reasons, but why bother? There are so many reasons not to choose this group; why would the State department actually choose them?
The answer, as it turns out, is lobbyists. The decision to choose GIFC followed a four-year lobbying campaign by the group, and caused a bit of controversy within the Obama administration, according to the Washington Post. There was also a fair amount of pressure, apparently, as the lobbying campaign also targeted the media:
“In the past year, columnists at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the editorial page of The Washington Post have called for the State Department to fund GIFC.”
There’s some debate as to whether or not the decision was a direct result of this pressure:
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a State Department official said the decision to offer funding to GIFC was “done on the merits of its technology” and was not a response to political pressure. Others aren’t so sure.
“The politics of this on Capitol Hill have been such that I can also see how the State Department was under immense pressure to give them funding,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy.
Regardless of the reasoning behind it, this whole thing seems like a pretty terrible idea. But what do you think? It’s been a while since I’ve posted on china/divide, so I’m hoping all the trolls can climb out from under their bridges for old times’ sake.
- Ironically, I can’t access or link to any of these independent web freedom projects because my ISP is a school with filtered internet (anything related to internet anonymization is blocked), but I’m sure some commenters can help. [↩]
- There seem to be more of these people every day; for the most recent event that caused netizens to jump the wall, see Danwei’s coverage on Japanese porn star Aoi Sola [↩]
- Again, can’t confirm this because their site is blocked on our school network. [↩]