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Fareed Zakaria GPS

China Celebrates A Century Of Communism; Interview With Malcolm Gladwell. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired June 27, 2021 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the show, next week marks an event China has been preparing for literally for decades. The 100th anniversary of the Communist Party. Where is this new superpower headed? Are we at the start of a new cold war? I brought together a fascinating group of experts.

Also, the host of "Revisionist History" Malcolm Gladwell on some of the things he's been thinking deeply about recently. From a future filled with autonomous cars and why cyclists are excited about that, to why war games are so important in avoiding, well, war.

Plus, why college rankings may be biased against Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

MALCOLM GLADWELL, HOST, REVISIONIST HISTORY: We have a system that is rewarding schools for no other reason than the fact they have a lot of money in the bank and that they admit a lot of rich, wealthy white students. I'm sorry, but that is absolutely preposterous. That is crazy.


ZAKARIA: But first, here's my take. Eric Adams is likely to be the next mayor of New York City after taking a commanding lead in this week's Democratic primary. Here's what he said on the night of the election.


ERIC ADAMS, NEW YORK CITY MAYORAL CANDIDATE: Social media does not pick a candidate. People on Social Security picks a candidate.


ZAKARIA: Adams was making the point that Democrats should take seriously the party's progressive wing makes noise and gets attention, but voters prefer pragmatists to ideologues. As big cities see a sharp resurgence in violent crime, homicides were up more than 30 percent last year and an additional 24 percent so far this year. And as places struggle to revive growth and employment, the focus on governance will only heighten.

Today the Democratic Party has control of just 18 state legislatures compared to 30 for Republicans. Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars to flip the legislatures in Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and Texas. They failed everywhere, and they even managed to lose control of New Hampshire's legislature. Since states oversee redistricting and voting laws, the 2022 midterms look very tough for Democrats.

Part of the issue is Republican advantages, the overrepresentation of rural areas, for example. But Democratic failures also play a role. Put bluntly, too many Democratic states have gotten bloated, mismanaged and corrupt.

Take New York state. It has a budget nearly twice the size of Florida's, though it has roughly the same population. Its budget is just 12 percent smaller than California's despite having half as many people.

Can anyone even explain why?

This increased spending does not always pay off. Steven Malunga of the "City Journal" cites an analysis by the financial Web site Wallet Hub, comparing tax revenues with the quality of public services, such as infrastructure, education and health care. New York has the eighth highest tax late but ranks 19th in quality of services. California is sixth highest on taxes and 37th on public services. States like New Jersey and Massachusetts, despite massive spending, have some of the worst infrastructure in the country.

Similarly, sky high education spending in these states doesn't translate into better educational outcomes. As Ryan Fazio notes in the "New York Post," New York spends nearly twice as much per pupil as the national average, and yet its fourth and eighth grade reading and math scores are no better than the national average.

Things have reached a tipping point. Around 14,000 businesses left California between 2009 and 2019. This seems to have gotten worse in the past few years with Tesla, Apple, Charles Schwab, Facebook, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard all announcing significant relocations to or expansions in Texas.


In 2021, the top states for running a business according to CEOs were Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina and Indiana. The worst five were California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Washington.

The pandemic has opened up horizons for companies that are now thinking more aggressively about relocations, remote work forces and flexible office locations. All this bodes poorly for blue states. And it's not just businesses that are leaving blue states. People are as well. For the first time on record, California's population actually decreased last year. Illinois was one of the few states to see its population shrink over the last decade.

As the "Wall Street Journal" observes, it can't be the weather since every other Midwestern state actually gained people over the same period. Meanwhile, Texas and Florida together swelled by more than six million people.

All of this, of course, translates into more political power. New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia and Ohio will all lose congressional seats while Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Montana, Colorado and Oregon will gain them. These shifts plus redistricting probably mean Democrats could lose the House even if they perform just as well in 2022 as they did in 2020.

Liberals don't like to face squarely the issue of Democratic incompetence. New York, for example, handled the pandemic disastrously at the state and city level. As Ryan Cooper has pointed out, New York state's COVID-19 deaths rose faster than anyplace on the planet at an equivalent point in their outbreaks. Its death rate per capita is almost 60 percent higher than Florida's, yet New York's leaders were fettered as heroes.

In an extensive investigation of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, ProPublica paints a devastating picture of serious mistakes, the overruling of experts, combined with coverups and denial. In other words, many of the same error for which Donald Trump was likely excoriated.

The Democratic Party wants more government now. From many good causes and reasons, but in order to gain the trust of people, it needs to first face up to its failures and work harder to show that it can effectively manage the governments it is already running. President Biden is doing that at the federal level. At the local level, New York City would be a good place to start.

Go to for a link to my "Washington Post" column this week. And let's get started.

On Thursday China will throw a huge nationwide party. There are propaganda films at all movie theaters across the United States are required to play, monuments and official buildings are being spiffed up. There are major exhibits, commemorative collectibles and more. The occasion for all of this is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinse Communist Party.

In the ensuing century, the party has presided over what Jeff Sachs calls the most successful development story in world history. The question is, what comes next? A cold war with America? Widening internal fractures? A move towards democracy, perhaps?

Here to discuss our Elizabeth Economy, Rana Mitter and Jiayang Fan. Elizabeth is a senior fellow for China Studies of the Council on Relations. Rana is a professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford. And Jiayang is a staff writer at the "New Yorker."

Rana, you're a historian. What does this mean in historical perspective? Not a lot of parties have lasted that long. RANA MITTER, PROFESSOR OF MODERN CHINA, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD: Very few

parties have lasted that long, Fareed, and certainly no other communist party certainly of this stature, certainly of that size, has lasted this long. What it means is essentially that the party has survived 100 years through some of the most extraordinary turmoil that any political institution has seen.

In 1921 it started off as a dozen young men gathering basically in tea houses to talk about Marxism in the city of Beijing, now it's a machine that rules a quarter of humanity, but on the way it's caused some horrific results, the greatly flawed and cultural illusion of the '50s and '60s where millions died, and also of course created one of the most astonishing economic growth miracles in the last 30 or 40 years.


All those things are true at the same time and that's the huge story that's being commemorated with the 100th anniversary.

ZAKARIA: Liz, explain to us the party's relationship to the society because we hear a lot about the party, but the party is not the country.

ELIZABETH ECONOMY, SENIOR FELLOW, STANFORD'S HOOVER INSTITUTION: No. That's right, and I think in many respects this 100-year celebration is, you know, at its core, is about legitimating the party in the eyes of the Chinese people. You know, from the time that Chinese are 6 years old, right there, inculcated in school with the glory of the party. But it doesn't obviate the fact that, you know, the party really represents only about 6.5 percent of the Chinese populations, about 91 million, 92 million people out of a population of 1.4 billion people.

And they occupy all of the most important positions in government and many in universities and hospitals and industry. But nobody votes these people in. Right? This is a self-selected group, and so it's, you know, up to the Chinese Communist Party to legitimate itself through its performance. And so I think this 100-year anniversary is really going to be a testament to the Chinese Communist Party's narrative that it has, you know, successfully fought against outside oppressors, that it has, as Rana said, had this extraordinary, you know, economic growth story, and that it has now reclaimed a degree of centrality on the global stage as Xi Jinping has promised.

And so that's the tradeoff. The tradeoff is the sort of right of the Chinese people to have a say in who leads them against this kind of performative legitimacy.

ZAKARIA: Jiayang, how does it look from what you can tell in China in the sense that do people, generally speaking, think the party has done a good job? I mean, per capita GDP in China has gone up about five- fold in the last 30 years. Even when you look at the pandemic, you know, after whatever happened initially, the Chinese were able to control COVID remarkably effectively.

Is the general sense one of competence and people willing to make the tradeoff of not having a say in the way Liz was describing?

JIAYANG FAN, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Right, Fareed. I mean, I think it's sometimes hard to say because information is so tightly controlled in China and dissent is usually tamped down extremely effectively. But by and large, I think, the Chinese populist has bought into this bargain prosperity in exchange for a lack of political say.

I think in China there is a spirit of, you know, general jubilation that China has finally arrived, that the century of humiliation, which as you described the years in which China has suffered in the hands of foreign powers has finally ended, and we have begun the era of rejuvenation in China's restoration to its deserved glory.

So nationalism runs very high, and nationalism undersea has been one of the most potent instruments, weapons, really, of the Communist Party, and I think the 100th year anniversary, the performance of it, just is another way in which, you know, this is being expressed.

ZAKARIA: When we come back, I'll ask the panel, are we watching the start of a new cold war?



ZAKARIA: And we are back with Elizabeth Economy, Rana Mitter, and Jiayang Fan talking about China.

Rana, when you look at China, there's a school of thought that says China has always been internally obsessed. Saw itself as the center of the world, the middle kingdom. It's not really that expansionist. But under Xi, there's certainly seems a much greater sense of scolding countries, punishing countries, asserting China's rights. Is China -- has China become more expansionist? Give us a sense of what it looks like in historical perspective.

MITTER: I think in some ways what China is doing today looks very like what it's done over hundreds of years, which is in its immediate backyard, in places that are on its own borders like Xinjiang where Uighurs are being held in so-called reeducation camps, really detention camps, where Hong Kong is being really kind of constrained in terms of freedoms there. The shutdown of the "Apple Daily" newspapers is an example of that recently.

In those areas, China is really showing, particularly under Xi, that it's not willing to tolerate any kind of dissent in the wider sense, and it wants to have control. But as you move out in concentric circles, as you move out wider into Eurasia and into the areas where the Belt and Road initiative, that big economic, you know, technology driven attempt to try and create infrastructure around the world.

There is an interest in creating economic interest and also kind of technological part dependency. You know, 5g is coming from China, in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. The likelihood is they'll take Chinese 6g and 7g when that comes along as well. But is that the same thing as direct political control? But the idea that the old Soviet Union, or even the British empire, a generation had of taking over territories. That sort of expansionism I think is not in the mind of the Chinese Communist Party.

The reason being in the end what I think China's Communist Party wants is for the world to think well of it and approve of it.


That's why it gets so angry with criticism. And I have to say for a historian, that looks much more like a traditional imperial Confucious way of looking things rather than necessarily a communist way of looking at things. In some ways, if you treated the emperor of China, right, in the old ways, he wouldn't mind all that much what you did behind his back. But if you basically insulted him to his face, then you were in for a very, very hard time. There's some tone with that going on today with that very angry language.

ZAKARIA: Jiayang, it seems as though, this -- I mean, XI seems popular. You know, we do have surveyed data and of course one can believe it or not, but it does all seem to point to the idea that this kind of nationalism that Rana was talking about, there is even an element of populism there. It seems to work domestically as it does in many other countries.

FAN: Yes, I mean, it really does feed upon itself. I think that's what makes this revolution of nationalism is so potent because even among the young, especially those who have not suffered in the culture revolution, the great leap forward, the great famine, they have only experienced China from the '80s onwards in its successive economic reforms that have brought, you know, relative prosperity to the country, and they buy into Xi's rhetoric of seeing the world as divided between China's friends and enemies.

And the U.S. being one of the possible enemies of China is seen as a country that is determined to bring shame and undermine China's future development. And for the young, especially millennials and Gen-Z who have grown up more connected to the world than ever, they see this as something that they must rally against. So for the rising generation of the Chinese, they do, I think, buy into ceased nationalism because it is so strictly tied to their identity and, you know, their need to feel a pride in their sense of Chinese identity.

ZAKARIA: Liz, do you think the Biden administration is handling this new China, more expansionist, more aggressive, maybe, in some ways? Is Biden handling China well?

ECONOMY: I think the administration has gotten off to a good start. I think they've, you know, sort of built upon the Trump administration policy in important ways, so I think the threat perceptions remain the same, but they've expanded the tools at their disposal to include, you know, much greater partnership with our allies.

So, you know, working with the quad, Japan, India and Australia, but also with our European allies to focus on democratic values, you know, talking about the sanctions against China, doing joint sanctions with the E.U. and the U.K. and Canada against China for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

I think the U.S. is back in terms of multilateral institutions. You know, the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. basically said it wasn't interested in leading, you know, on the global stage anymore. President Biden clearly has a different perspective. I think that's incredibly important.

So, it's a combination of both recognizing the threat and the challenge that China poses sort of across the board but also returning to many traditional foreign policy values and approaches in terms of U.S. leadership on the global stage while still maintaining an openness to cooperating with China.

And I think that is important. Secretary of State Blinken has made clear the U.S. wants to cooperate with China, you know, in targeted narrow issues like climate change and Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran. It's not interested in a broad gauged strategic dialogue, you know, where nothing gets accomplished and you're just talking for talking's sake.

But it is interested in working with China where it makes sense so I think they've established an important and workable framework. We'll have to see how it evolves moving forward, though. It's going to be a very challenging relationship.

ZAKARIA: This has been an important set of reflections about what is going to be the most important relationship the United States has in the world. Probably for most countries it's most important or second most important relationship right now.

Thank you so much.

Next on GPS, what is on Malcolm Gladwell's mind these days? Well, a whole lot. He has insights on everything from self-driving cars to war games to historically black colleges, and the "Little Mermaid," yes, the movie.


He'll tell us all about it when we come back.


MALCOLM GLADWELL, AUTHOR, JOURNALIST: This is a vigilante movie. It's a vigilante movie that is focused, that is aimed at nine-year-old girls. This is crazy. Why are we showing our nine-year-old daughters vigilante movies?


ZAKARIA: Malcolm Gladwell is an industry unto himself. He has sold many millions of books in dozens languages starting with his seminal volume "The Tipping Point" in 2000. And now he is a master podcaster.

[10:30:00] His podcast, "Revisionist History," has been downloaded more than 100 million times in the last two years, according to his production company.

ZAKARIA: He's out with a new season of the podcast and has many, many fascinating new stories to tell.

Welcome back, Malcolm.

GLADWELL: Thank you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: So there was one that caught my attention, was autonomous cars. Because everyone talks about this, and yet you don't see it happening as fast as people were predicting. Are we moving rapidly to a point where we're going to be able to, you know, do e-mails while the car is actually driving for us?

GLADWELL: Yeah, I think it's pretty clear it's coming. The question is how quickly. I was -- you know, for my episode on autonomous cars, I went down to -- to Phoenix and rode in Waymo, which is Google's autonomous vehicle effort.

And, you know, it's incredibly impressive. It's a far cry more sophisticated than the kind of -- you know, the systems that are in Teslas, for example. And it's very difficult to ride in the back of a Waymo and not believe that we're all going to be in autonomous vehicles, you know, within the decade.

That was -- I was -- I was blown away by the -- by the technology.

ZAKARIA: But when you look at Waymo, is it -- is that the future? because my understanding is that's still pretty expensive. I mean, they have -- those things look like...


ZAKARIA: ... you know, some kind of tanks with dozens of cameras and sensors on them.

GLADWELL: Yeah, they are. I mean -- I mean, at this point we're in the earliest stages of the technology. I just -- I can't help but be optimistic that this is going to end up in a form that will be affordable and usable for all of us.

In fact, the point of my episode was to imagine what would happen when every car on the road was autonomous.

And that is the delicious future that lies in -- in wait for all of us, because, as sort of a slightly tongue in cheek episode, but the thing that I was exploring was something that I read about in this wonderful paper from a guy named Adam -- Adam Millard-Ball who's an urban planner at UCLA, who pointed out that, if every car on the road is autonomous -- in other words, if every car is perfectly behaved, right, because autonomous vehicles, if they're controlled by a computer, they are rational and patient and good-natured in a way that human drivers are not. "What does that mean," this guy Millard-Ball asks.

And his answer was, "Well, it means that pedestrians, cyclists, runners, little kids playing soccer can all do whatever they want, right? They can take back the road.

ZAKARIA: Because...


ZAKARIA: Because the autonomous car will always -- will always give you the right-of-way at those moments.

GLADWELL: It will always -- exactly. Why don't you -- why don't you jaywalk all the time right now?

Because you have a legitimate fear that, one out of every 10 times, the driver is not going to see you and they'll kill you, right?

That's why -- that's why most of us cross at the light, at the crosswalk, look both ways first, because we're terrified of some dumb driver.

If every car on the road is autonomous, we're not terrified anymore. The cars are perfect.

They're -- so I tested this out with a Waymo in a parking lot just outside of Phoenix. And I was running alongside the car -- this is where the -- the episode ends -- and just doing what I wanted, and the car was the most respectful -- every time I cut in front of it, it stopped. Every time I was -- ran in front of it, it slowed down.

And I realized, in a world full of these things, you know, my track club will do its -- will do its workouts on the interstate. I -- I'm also a big cyclist. The reason I don't cycle in Manhattan is that I'm terrified. I will no longer be terrified, and nor will thousands and thousands of other people. I'm not even sure it will be possible to drive a car across Manhattan if every car is autonomous because the -- the cyclists will be everywhere.


ZAKARIA: All right: war gaming. How did you come -- come to think about war games and war plans? And what did you find?

GLADWELL: Well, I -- you know, I'm on the board of RAND. And RAND is one of the big war gaming shops in America. And every now and again, we would have a presentation at one of our board meetings on a war game.

And I always found them incredibly fascinating. And in particular I was fascinated by this idea that there is a certain kind of insight you get from a prediction and a certain kind of insight you get from a plan, but a wholly different kind of insight that you get from a game.

And everyone at -- at RAND, in the war gaming world, quotes this famous line from Thomas Schelling, of course, one of the most brilliant men of the 20th Century, Nobel Prize winner and founder of game theory -- who once said, "No one, no matter how intelligent, can make a list of the things that would not occur to them -- which is the point of a war game.


The point of a war game is that we play a game in order to expose ourselves to things that were outside of our reckoning, that just simply were too weird and unexpected and -- and odd for us to have thought about on our own.

And that idea is so crucial. The military gets this, of course, which is why they do war games over and over and over again, because they're aware of their limitations as predictors, as normal human predictors. They're aware, as Schelling pointed out, that they cannot, on their own, come up with a list of things that wouldn't have occurred to them.

I wonder whether the rest of the world needs to learn this lesson -- particularly, you know, I'm thinking of COVID here. You know, there's a whole series of things that had not occurred to us about a pandemic, that we were simply not prepared for, and that we might have been prepared for if we had done these kinds of elaborate simulations of the sort that are commonplace in the military world.


ZAKARIA: Next on "GPS," Malcolm has long been skeptical of U.S. college rankings. Now he has some powerful new fodder for his argument, which he'll explain when we come back.



ZAKARIA: And we are back here on "GPS" with the one and only Malcolm Gladwell.

What about these college ratings? What are you -- what did you find about how it affected, or how it dealt with historically black colleges?

GLADWELL: Yeah. So I -- I have been obsessed with the U.S. News rankings for many years. As a -- like you, as a non-American, I came to this country largely ignorant of the higher ed system and have come away from my time here with the impression that it's nuts! It's completely crazy!

And one of the things that's crazy about it is that we insist on using as our benchmark for assessing the quality of colleges this thing called the U.S. News rankings. So I decided I would investigate the algorithm that the U.S. News uses to rank colleges.

And it's -- it's, sort of, quasi-secret. So I found some hackers at Reed College who had hacked their way into the algorithm and we -- we proceeded to play a series of games. Let's just find out.

So one of the things they did -- and this is actually not funny. It's quite disturbing. One of the biggest variables in the U.S. News ranking is what they called a peer assessment score. So this -- this accounts for more than any other variability in the ranking. And it's -- they send a questionnaire to every college president in the country and have them rank the academic reputation of all the other colleges in this country on a scale of 1 to 5. And that counts for a huge amount.

Now, right away, you realize the absurdity of this. So if I am the president of Yeshiva University in Manhattan, I am ranking, you know, Brigham Young on a scale of 1 to 5. Now, in all -- with all due respect to the rabbi who runs Yeshiva, I am quite sure he's never been to Brigham Young. And I am quite sure that the Brigham Young guy has never been to Yeshiva, right? Now, can we just stipulate that?

They don't know anything about each other. And yet U.S. News is asking them to rate each other on a scale of 1 to 5. It's just absurd.

But I had my hackers do a regression on the peer assessment score to figure out, well, what factors correlate most closely with a high reputation score, with a 5?

And the answer is, if I take just three variables, the size of a school's endowment, the amount of money they charge in tuition and the number of white people on campus, I can predict the U.S. News reputation score with 91.3 percent accuracy.

In other words, a huge part of this algorithm is simply measuring how much money a school has and how many white people it has on campus. That does not bode well, for example, for a historically black college, right, which, by definition, doesn't have a lot of money because it's serving a -- a -- a population that's at the other end of the socioeconomic scale, and that doesn't have a lot of white kids on campus and that by design charges a low amount of tuition because they want to be affordable for kids.

So we have a system that is systemically impoverishing schools who want to provide educational opportunities to poorer kids and that is rewarding schools for no other reason than the fact they have a lot of money in the bank and that they admit a lot of rich, wealthy white students.

I'm sorry, but that is absolutely preposterous! That is crazy. I don't even think most people who casually glance at those rankings in order to help their children make a decision about where to apply to colleges realize how preposterous these rankings are.

And I haven't just -- I could go on, Fareed, for -- as I do, I have two shows on this. I go on for an hour and a half on how nuts these things are. I've just -- I've just scratched the surface. I could go down every variable in that algorithm and show you, prove to you that it is so completely bonkers, and that these variables have nothing to do with the underlying quality of the school. ZAKARIA: And it's -- and it's not just, you know, that the society

takes them so seriously, it's that American high schools are essentially geared almost entirely to figuring out how to get kids into those colleges based on the very rankings you're describing. Anyway...


ZAKARIA: ... we have to go on because I have to get -- I have to understand why three of the episodes in the series are about one movie, a much beloved movie, "The Little Mermaid."

But you come not to praise "The Little Mermaid" but to bury it.


GLADWELL: Fareed, now, I know you've watched it, and I know you have -- you have daughters, so you are -- you cannot plead ignorance on this.


I had not watched it. I went back and watched it at the grand old age of 57, and I discovered to my horror and shock that this movie is crazy.

Fareed, this is a movie about a young, spirited mermaid who is independent and full of life, who gets into trouble and can only be saved, first of all, by a handsome prince, who can't save herself. And the handsome prince, the way he saves her from this dilemma, is by committing a murder in cold blood, an extra-legal execution of a witch, right -- like, this is a vigilante movie. It's a vigilante movie that is...


... focused, that is aimed at nine-year-old girls. This is crazy. Why are we showing our nine-year-old daughters vigilante movies?

And then, again, I -- I have many other critiques of this. But we -- we rewrite -- I got Brit Marling, the brilliant screenwriter and actress, to rewrite the ending. And we did it -- and our ending is a good ending, is a -- is the ending you want your daughter to listen to.


ZAKARIA: As long as you like Sebastian the crab, I'm OK.

GLADWELL: I love Sebastian. That's not -- he's not the problem, let's just put it that way.


ZAKARIA: Malcolm Gladwell, always a pleasure.

GLADWELL: Thank you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Next on "GPS," Donald Trump unleashed his fury at social media companies for banning him from their platforms. It turns out he isn't the only current or former world leader seething about social media. That story, when we come back.



ZAKARIA: And now for the last look. On Thursday, Hong Kongers flocked to newsstands for a piece of history, the last print issue of the pro- democracy newspaper "Apple Daily," a monument to that city's long- lasting freedoms.

The paper was forced to close after the government froze its bank accounts, arrested its journalists and imprisoned its founder, the ardent democracy activist Jimmy Lai.

The news is tragic but not unexpected. China is, after all, a powerful Communist dictatorship and it has been dismantling Hong Kong's autonomy for months.

Far more frightening is the fact that similar trends are now visible in some of the world's largest democracies. Some of these elected governments are clamping down on free speech and in an increasingly dynamic place, online.

Take India, a country that could have more than 800 million smartphone users by next year. Late last month a raft of new rules went into effect that make social media companies criminally liable for content that users post online.

Under the new laws, companies like Twitter and Facebook have 36 hours to take down posts that the government finds objectionable, including posts that are deemed to be counter to public order, decency or morality or the sovereignty and integrity of India, all concepts to be interpreted by the government.

And recent history tells us that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi might interpret such categories very broadly.

Reuters reported last month that India asked social media companies to take down posts referring to the, quote, "Indian variant" during the second deadly COVID wave.

In February, the Modi government ordered Twitter to block hundreds of accounts belonging to opposition politicians and journalists.

Here's the tragedy. India is not alone in this trend. Look at Indonesia, a country that was becoming increasingly democratic and open over the last two decades.

As the Economist reported, its government has issued a series of new regulations that require tech companies to take down objectionable content with as little as four hours' notice. That's in the case of content depicting child sexual abuse or inciting terrorism, as well as the troublingly vague category of "content that disturbs society," again, to be interpreted by the government.

Also vague is the category of companies subject to this law. It certainly includes social media companies, but it could include news websites large and small, which means the law, effectively, could censor all press.

These laws are little more than digital censorship in the guise of regulation. But sometimes countries use even blunter instruments. Look at Nigeria. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Information took to Twitter to make an announcement. It was banning Twitter.

The ban came after Twitter took down a controversial post by President Muhammadu Buhari and temporarily suspended his account. As the New York Times notes, his tweet, which warns secessionist groups in the fractious southeast against agitating, was seen by many as a thinly veiled threat against the Igbo community in a country riven by ethnic tensions.

Nigeria's Twitter ban was welcomed in at least one quarter. Donald Trump, still barred from Twitter himself, issued a statement in enthusiastic support of Nigeria's actions.

Still, the Nigerian government has begun talks with Twitter this week, no doubt spurred on by the widespread outrage from Nigerians at an attack on what has become an essential platform for dissent in that country.

All over the world, governments are battling tech companies for control of online spaces. But it's one thing to invoke laws to stifle hate speech and abuse and quite another to use them to silence criticism.


When thinking about this issue, it's crucial to recognize that, in most developing countries lacking traditional infrastructure, forums and communications, the Internet has become a central platform for life itself.

In Nigeria, a country plagued by unemployment, Twitter is an essential e-commerce platform for young entrepreneurs. In India, during the recent paralyzing COVID wave, people took to social media to try to arrange life-saving oxygen and medicines for their loved ones when the hospitals ran out.

In many of these countries, social media provides the only serious and sustained check on government. So when democratic governments extend their control of social media or the Internet, they are really seeking to extend their control over the lives of their people.

Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.