Google and China: open letters and new debates

Photo Credit: Jin/Getty

The potentially final chapter in the Google-China saga may come this week, with the Internet giant close to following through with its threat of pulling out of China altogether. In mid-Janauary, Google announced it would stop censoring search results on google.cn, having being the victim of a sophisticated cyber attack originating in the PRC.

The events triggered an East-West discussion over Internet freedom, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly asserting its importance. Chinese mainstream media has, meanwhile, has been blazing a trail against what they see as an ‘information imperialist’ with intricate ties to the US government. Google was most recently asked not to ‘politcalize’ (?) the conflict, as a Xinhua commentary published on Sunday claimed:

It is unfair for Google to impose its own value and yardsticks on Internet regulation to China, which has its own time-honored tradition, culture and value.

This response has not been surprising: the issue of censorship is a non-negotiable for Beijing. But the saga has gone beyond reminding us of the policing of the Chinese Internet to truly illuminating how different it is from its Western counterpart: simply, Google’s moves could potentially push China closing to harbouring what we now know could be a sprawling Intranet.

This has had ramifications for Chinese web users, both apolitical and not. This weekend, an open-source letter was published by a group of activists demanding clarity over the speculation of the last two months. Rebecca MacKinnon translated,

if Google.cn were to no longer exist, or if China were to further block other Google services, has the Chinese government considered how their blocking of foreign websites and censorship of domestic websites violates Chinese citizens’ right to scientific, educational, environmental, clean energy and other information? How will this loss be lessened or compensated for?

As MacKinnon says, the Google-China incident has sparked some soul searching about the extent to which the Chinese government is causing China to be isolated from the rest of the world. A new debate on accountability stretching to both governments and Internet companies may also be a result of recent events.

Google’s potential departure also holds promise for China’s domestic Internet companies keen to capitalise on the situation. As TIME’s Bill Powell says,

Google’s stock price has declined from $595 to about $567, while Baidu, the leading search engine in China, has seen its stock price rise by 50%.

Michael Schuman, meanwhile, has been pondering over the connection, if there is one, between economic progress and human rights. Specifically, could “China’s stand on human rights…cause it to miss out on crucial opportunities necessary for its future growth”? He concludes,

the real test of China’s political and social policies will come as it attempts to shift from an economy that makes cheap stuff to one that innovates and invents advanced products and technologies. Only then will we find out if the government’s control of information and personal freedoms will hamper its efforts to catch up with the United States, Japan and South Korea. Perhaps then China will realize the importance of having Google in its economy rather than outside of it.

Schuman’s opinion is certainly on point as China nears towards a crucial crossroads in its own stage of development. With regards to its economic shift, as China’s middle class becomes wealthier and commands more purchasing power, the government will also need to readjust itself to accommodate this growing echelon of society.

Whether it does so, at least in part, by heeding to the demands of the authors of the aforementioned letter may well be too far off in the distance. While these tumultuous events have increased the volume in previously quiet discussions, we shouldn’t get too excited, not least if this recent Xinhua commentary is anything to go by:

Whether (Google) leaves or not, the Chinese government will keep its Internet regulation principles unchanged.

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