Copyright The Guardian
As the Twittersphere exploded with news that Google may leave the China market rather than continue to operate a censored site, one Chinese Twitterer wrote: “It’s not Google that’s withdrawing from China; it’s China that’s withdrawing from the world.”
For Google, the hacking of gmail accounts was the last straw. As a leading global company in technology and innovation, Google thrives on the open flow of information. Yet, since the company set foot on Chinese soil in 2006, it has been a constant target: Google search phrases are often reset. YouTube and Blogger cannot be accessed. Google docs is often interrupted. Search results on google.cn must be heavily censored.
Of course, Google is not the only foreign IT company to face such hurdles in China. The internet is a liberating force for Chinese citizens, and the government fears it as a threat to its monopoly on information. Google has constantly demonstrated its capacity to empower users in China and so has become a special target.
With over 360m internet users, including more then 10m bloggers, the will for political participation in China is growing. The internet has provided Chinese citizens with an unprecedented opportunity to express political views and criticise the state, despite the censorship, on a variety of issues from official corruption to peasants, from education to social security, foreign relations, human rights, and the economic gap.
The internet has become a key mainstream medium: a recent study showed that one news item on a well-known website can spread to more than 500 websites within in four hours, creating considerable traffic of public opinion. A simple keyword search of blog content over the past five years shows that use of terms related to, for example, “freedom of speech”, “defending rights”, or “political transition” are clearly increasing.
Online communities are becoming becoming quasi-organisational, and exist outside traditional methods of government control. In recent months, the Chinese government has become especially concerned that online speech will turn into action.
As a result, the Chinese government has made control of the internet a high policy priority, at the level of “state security”, especially “political security”. It has passed laws, established an internet police force, set up government spokespeople and trained the infamous “fifty cent party” of government-trained undercover commentators tasked with “guiding online opinion”. They also force internet companies, foreign and domestic, to self-police content on their sites.
The Great Firewall now blocks hundreds of thousands websites outside of China. Fang Binxing, a computer scientist who is called the father of the Great Firewall, in recent public policy speeches has emphasised a unique Chinese government concept of “content security”, which includes information surveillance, blocking and public opinion analysis and monitoring.
Google has decided it can no longer aid and abet the government in maintaining such “content security”. Yet, even if the Chinese government does block all the services and products Google provides outside China, it is not the end of the story. The fact that most, if not all, Google services and products will not be available inside the Great Firewall will only generate stronger demand among Chinese netizens for circumvention tools.
This highly symbolic move by Google demonstrates the fundamental conflict between the free flow of information and an authoritarian regime; it also highlights the importance of defending internet freedom. Even if the company is not operating inside China, Google represents the force and future of the internet, which will continue to empower Chinese netizens to demand political change.
By standing up to the Chinese censorship regime, Google has won the respect and admiration of millions of Chinese netizens, myself included.
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Xiao Qiang – The Guardian
Copyright The Guardian