China finds own way online: Outsiders are out of line to dictate rules inside the country

George Koo – Copyright The San Francisco Chronicle

Copyright The San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, March 5, 2006
The current furor over China’s Internet firewall can
be boiled down to one simple conclusion: In my house,
I rule; in your house, I also rule. In other words, we
Americans insist that the Chinese make use of the
Internet in the same way we do.
This kind of logic makes as much sense as insisting
that Beijing grant a broadcasting license to Voice of
America inside China. So far, not even our hubris has
reached that patently ludicrous conclusion.
In fact, the information and messages we think the
Chinese people should not be deprived of are beamed by
Voice of America from outside China, not from within.
If Google, Yahoo et al wish to permit unfiltered
access to all sorts of information to the people of
China, they can. Just do it from outside China.
In order to operate from inside China, it seems
obvious that the companies would have to abide by the
rules and regulations of the host country. We may not
like those rules, but that’s what sovereignty is all
about.
Congress takes a different view, equating China’s
Internet policy to violation of human rights and
denial of freedom of speech. Silicon Valley Internet
companies are accused of dastardly complicity. Yet,
ask Web surfers in China for their reaction; they
merely shrug and cannot understand what the fuss is
all about.
What about the human rights of journalists jailed in
China for their indiscretion on the Net? In the same
light, what about the many hapless innocent people
caught in the U.S. fight against terrorism now
languishing in Guantanamo or who were outsourced to
third countries for torture? We may argue as to which
is a greater violation of human rights, but ultimately
the resolution will come from within and not be
dictated by another foreign authority.
In China, people use the Internet to play games, read
the news and socialize in chat groups. Few use the
Internet to purvey political messages; most do not
care and do not feel deprived.
It’s not as if China actively discourages use of and
access to the Internet. Just the opposite: From about
1 million users in 1998, China has seen an increase to
about 110 million users in seven years. It will soon
overtake the United States as the largest market of
Internet users. Policymakers in Beijing see the
importance of information flow to economic growth more
clearly than perhaps anywhere else.
Naturally, as China’s market grows, it becomes
increasingly difficult for Silicon Valley companies to
ignore. Congress seems to think that China needs
Silicon Valley technology more than the companies need
the market. Not so. Chinese Internet users prefer
China’s Baidu search engine over Google by a wide
margin. Baidu’s very success drove Google to enter the
market. Huawei and Ztech are offering lower-cost
networking switches to compete with Cisco. Yahoo
leapfrogged its own effort to penetrate the Chinese
market by spending $1 billion for a large stake in
Alibaba, the most successful e-commerce Web site in
that country.
Beijing’s desire to control the flow of content while
encouraging popular access are not mutually compatible
over the long haul. The situation fits the classic
Chinese term for contradiction, mao dun — spear and
shield. As technology advances, the power of the
Internet will continue to grow and any firewall
technology (the shield) will always play catch-up.
One of the Chinese government’s reasons for the
firewall is to restrict access to pornography in
cyberspace. Its neighbor Taiwan, lacking such control,
is a major source of purveyors of smut. It will be
interesting to see how this contradiction plays out as
the two sides entwine even more deeply in their
economic integration.
In November, the Pew Research Center announced the
results of its global attitudes survey involving the
people of 18 countries, including China and the United
States. One of the questions asked, “How satisfied are
you with the way things are in your country?” China
scored the highest among the 18 countries, with 72
percent indicating satisfaction and 19 percent not
satisfied. In the United States, the results were
reversed, with merely 39 percent satisfied and 57
percent not.
Perhaps Congress was unaware of the Pew survey results
because they were reported by few in the U.S. media.
Rather than holding congressional hearings on why
China should make its cyberspace more open, shouldn’t
our elected politicians show more concern on why a
mere 39 percent of our citizens are happy with the way
things are going here?
George Koo wrote this commentary for New American
Media, which is based in San Francisco. Contact us at
insight@sfchronicle.com.


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