China makes Clinton's speech look tougher than it was

China's overwrought reaction to Hillary Clinton's speech on Internet freedom yesterday has had the interesting effect of making her words seem much bolder and significant than they actually were. Here's what a foreign ministry spokesman had to say:

"Regarding comments that contradict facts and harm China-U.S. relations, we are firmly opposed," Ma said in a statement posted Friday on the ministry's Web site. "We urge the U.S. side to respect facts and stop using the so-called freedom of the Internet to make unjustified accusations against China."

China's Global Times newspaper went farther, accusing the United States of "information imperialism." It's interesting to read the London Times' write-up of the Chinese reaction, which reports that Clinton had "warned Beijing that its alleged attack on Google, which prompted the internet search engine to threaten withdrawal from China, would have “consequences”".

In fact, Clinton warned that "Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks" -- defined generally -- would face consequences. Here's what she actually said about China (my emphasis):

The most recent example of Google's review of its business operations in China has attracted a great deal of interest. We look to Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make this announcement. We also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent. The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it's great that so many people there are now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century. The United States and China have different views on this issue. And we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently.

Elsewhere in the speech, Clinton mentioned China's restrictions on information, particularly religious material, but it certainly doesn't sound like the United States is planning to take concrete actions against China's Internet censors anytime soon.

It strikes me that Beijing could have issued a statement along the lines of, "Secretary Clinton is right to say that the United States and China have different views on this issue. We welcome her invitation to dialog but ask that the United States respect the sovereignty of our electronic space and unique political context. We are actively engaged in cracking down on criminals and extremists who take refuge in cyberspace."

Acting as if Clinton's temperate remarks amounted to a thrown gauntlet makes it appear to the outside world that they have something to be ashamed of. It doesn't seem like the response of a secure superpower. 



Is Nigeria's president fit to rule? Ask your lawyer.

If you think there are a lot of lawyers in Washington, just go to Nigeria. Today from the capital city in Abuja, the prominent Nigerian laywer Bamidele Aturu suceeded in doing what the country's cabinet, senate, governors, ruling party, and protesting citizens could not: force the government to decide whether its missing president -- who has spent the last two months in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment -- is fit to rule. According to the court judgement, the cabinet has just 14 days to decide. And the cabinet was quick to say it will comply.

This is all very intriguing, of course. What on earth does one make of Africa's most-populous country being a headless beast? 

But here's what I find most interesting of all: little by little, and without anyone noticing, Nigeria's judiciary is becoming its democracy. In other words, it's law suits, not votes, that are keeping the politicians on their toes. This is, as I wrote once before, democracy by court order.

It all goes back to the last elections, in which Umaru Yar'Adua won through a terribly rigged vote. The charges of bad electoral behavior went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the justices got within inches of rendering the entire election void. It was as close as anyone has ever gotten to holding politicians accounting for their vote-rigging habit. (And in some of Nigeria's state elections, the votes really were overturned.) Since it was coming from Nigeria's own courts, the government could do little to stop it. I felt the excitement of that law suit the way that I imagine some people feel a protest or broad-based social movement. Finally, there was political momentum. Finally, people could breathe in a bit of democracy.

There have been other, less blockbuster examples: the courts succeeded in trying tobacco companies for their activities in Nigeria. They've gone after Pfizer for drug tests that prosecuting laywers (one is pictured above) say were illegal. Lawyers worked through the courts to end the military detention of the country's most notorious rebel leader prisoner. (Yes, probably a good thing he was detained. Not so good that he was kept first in Angola and then in a secret cell.) And a whole crew of self-proclaimed human rights lawyers are literally in court every day to defend the country's people against such ills as police abuse and government-orchestrated property siezures.

Now we're seeing the same thing again. When Nigerian democracy doesn't work, the courts are the only place to turn. And turn they do. The lawsuit that mandates this vote on Yar'Adua is just the first of a flood of law suits now demanding that the Nigerian government transition into the hands of the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. Even if the cabinet votes to keep Yar'Adua in power, the courts will be back to challenge them. You can't go missing for two months without at least a few of Nigeria's many lawyers noticing.