The controversy over Google’s announcement that it will stop censoring search results, and may therefore be forced to withdraw from the Chinese market, continues both in China and in the West. More experts have come forward to bolster the theory that the recent cyber attacks on Google and other US companies were sponsored by the Chinese Government itself. Meanwhile, Yahoo! has been lambasted by its Chinese partner Alibaba (who manages the Yahoo! brand in China) for offering support for Google’s position, calling the move "reckless" and visibly distancing itself from America’s growing stoush with the Chinese Communist Party and its censorship regime.
Among Chinese internet users, who have known little else, the concept of internet censorship itself is more widely accepted than it is in the West. The blocking of criminal or prurient content would generally arouse little comment. However, the public perception of the rationale behind the censorship system has shifted from being seen to protect citizens from harmful material — whether that is immoral or ideological — to being about protecting the Government from embarrassment or contradiction. This applies even more to the censorship of traditional media inside China. Wider themes of corruption and a growing disconnect between the Government and the people are at play, leading China’s netizens to regard censorship with more and more suspicion and frustration.
Chinese netizens’ reactions to Google’s decision have been mixed but emotional. Although there is the usual phalanx of patriotic users who respond vigorously to any perceived slight to China’s honour — the so-called "fenqing" or "angry youth" — there are plenty of more thoughtful people who worry about China’s place in the world and are concerned that their favourite tool for communication and collaboration is under threat. Those who have more contact with the West — who have foreign friends, who work in a foreign firm — are more likely to use Google services and be aware of the things they’re missing out on such as YouTube. But it’s more than just these foreign-friendly few: the approximately 30 per cent of China’s search market that Google had managed to carve out for itself represents many millions of the most educated and upwardly mobile people in the country. They are not happy with the situation and, surprisingly, many are on Google’s side.
Message boards are abuzz, and comments supporting Google are common: "For this, Google must be supported, f**k, in the future I won’t use [the search engine]Baidu anymore!", and, "I definitely support Google, definitely do not lower your head to the Celestial Kingdom [Chinese Government]." Chinese Twitter user "cxzj" wrote "It’s not Google that’s withdrawing from China, but China withdrawing from the world." Of course, some pragmatic souls are mainly concerned about losing the service’s functionality — "Without Google, how do I survive?", "Google has the world’s best knowledge management tools and productivity tools."
The implications for freedom of information in China are as clear to many Chinese as they are to us. Although the typical netizen approaches politics with wariness or disinterest, several Chinese have expressed to me a growing anger at the lengths their government will go to, to suppress information, and unease at the implications should they go any further. It’s seen as a frustration and a sign of national backwardness and has a clear impact on their daily lives. Google is the most visible manifestation of opposition to this trend and the company is being seen as its champion.
Indeed sympathy for Google has gone so far that several Chinese went down to the Google office and left flowers outside as an "in memoriam" and show of support. Shanghai blogger Jenny Zhu wrote that "Google is on the right side of history. I am bringing flowers to them." These "illegal flower tributes" were quickly removed by security officials.
True, several polls are reporting that many Chinese want their Government to stand up to Google, and the newspaper editorials are predictably dismissive, with People’s Daily accusing Google of "pouting". No doubt many feel this way, but does it represent the main current of opinion among internet users? If the support for Google is anything to go by, no — and with regulation set to tighten, we can expect that support to grow in the future.
Leaving the cyber-espionage aside, China’s internet censorship has grown noticeably more sophisticated and aggressive in the last 12 months. In that time we have seen the "Golden Shield"‘s capabilities extended, dropping more sites from the Chinese net, closing loopholes such as free VPN and proxy services, and the instigation of a more aggressive filtering of email, instant messaging and SMS traffic. You can be sure Google have noted all this with considerable consternation. Rather than loosening up, as they apparently hoped when entering the market in 2006, the Chinese internet is daily becoming a tougher and more fraught place to do business — especially with a clear conscience.
Google’s decision coincides with a more aggressive anti-censorship stance by the company in Australia. Google announced its intention to play a role in the debate on filtering with a blog post expressing scepticism about the efficacy of the scheme. Google, as a very credible commentator on internet issues, was already a thorn in the Australian Government’s side. Now, donning the mantle of defender of free speech and human rights in China, its activism can only throw Labor’s proposed filter into a worse light by comparing it with China’s own Golden Shield.
As Jason Wilson recently pointed out, given the limited contribution of the Chinese search market to Google’s bottom line, and the significant public relations benefits in the West, Google’s motivation might not be based entirely on an ideology of human freedom. If information is free, it’s free to go into a Google database and be commercialised. It’s fair to say, though, that from the point of view of Google’s management regarding their China operation, at some point what was seen as a "necessary evil" became simply "evil". Whatever its internal reasoning, the fact remains that Google has emerged on the world stage as a significant player in the global debate on censorship.
And where does all this leave the average Chinese internet user? In the short term at least, the future does not look rosy. Recent trends have all been bad: fewer choices, more invasive controls and more aggressive enforcement seem to be the order of the day. Although the Chinese Government abandoned recent attempts to force PC makers to install insidious Government censorware on every PC sold in the country, it did turn the internet completely off in Xinjiang province following unrest there. Thousands were arrested in anti-porn crackdowns last year and raunchy text messages can earn you a trip to the police station.
The only bright spot might be the stated goal of the US Government to make censorship-evading technology available to Chinese users and to the wider world. Whether that’s a measure that can truly be made to work by people in China remains to be seen.
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