It has been dispiriting to see America’s banks apparently stand for nothing more lofty than plunder. It has been demoralising to see President Barack Obama hiding from the Dalai Lama rather than offend China’s rulers.
So all that makes Google’s decision to stand up to Chinese cyber-oppression positively breathtaking. By announcing that it no longer plans to censor search results in China, even if that means it must withdraw from the country, Google is showing spine — a kind that few other companies or governments have shown toward Beijing.
One result was immediate: Young Chinese have been visiting Google’s headquarters in Beijing to deposit flowers and pay their respects. China promptly tried to censor the ensuing debate about its censorship, but many Chinese Twitter users went out of their way to praise Google. One from Guangdong declared: “It’s not Google that’s withdrawing from China, it’s China that’s withdrawing from the world.”
Cynics say that Google tried to turn a business setback (it lags in the Chinese market behind a local search engine, Baidu) into a bid to burnish its brand. Whatever the motivations, it marks a refreshing contrast to Yahoo assisting the Chinese government in sending four dissidents — Shi Tao, Li Zhi, Jiang Lijun and Wang Xiaoning — to prison for terms of up to 10 years.
Google announced its decision after a sophisticated Chinese attempt to penetrate the Gmail addresses of dissidents. The
episode and the resulting flap highlight two important points about China.
The first is that Beijing is increasingly devoting itself to cyber-warfare. This is a cheap way to counter American dominance in traditional military fields. If the US and China ever jostle with force, Beijing may hit America not with missiles but with cyber-infiltrations that shut down the electrical grid, disrupt communications and tinker with the floodgates of dams. Moreover, China’s leaders aren’t keeping their cyber-arsenal in reserve. They seem to be using it aggressively already.
A major coordinated assault on computers of the Dalai Lama, foreign embassies and even foreign ministries was uncovered last year and traced to Chinese hackers. The operation targeted computers in more than 100 countries and was so widespread that Western intelligence experts believe it was organised by the Chinese government, although there is no definitive proof of that.
A second point is that China is redrawing the balance between openness and economic efficiency. The architect of China’s astonishingly successful economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping, clenched his teeth and accepted photocopiers, fax machines, cellphones, computers and lawyers because they were part of modernisation.
Yet in the last few years, President Hu Jintao has cracked down on internet freedoms and independent lawyers and journalists. President Hu is intellectually brilliant but seems to have no vision for China 20 years from now. He seems to be the weakest Chinese leader since Hua Guofeng was stripped of power in 1978.
Instead, vision and leadership in China have come from its Netizens, who show none of the lame sycophancy that so many foreigners do. In their Twitter photos, many display yellow ribbons to show solidarity with Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer recently sentenced to 10 years in prison. That’s guts!
China’s Netizens scale the Great Firewall of China with virtual private networks and American-based proxy servers like Freegate. Young Chinese are also infinitely creative. When the government blocks references to ‘June 4’, the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Netizens evade the restriction by typing in ‘May 35’.
When I lived in China in the 1990s, an early computer virus would pop up on the screen and ask: Do you like Li Peng? (He was then the widely disliked hard-line prime minister.) If you said you didn’t like Li Peng, the virus disappeared and did no harm. If you expressed support for him, it tried to wipe out your hard drive.
Eventually, I think, a combination of technology, education and information will end the present stasis in China. In a conflict between the Communist Party and Google, the party will win in the short run. But in the long run, I’d put my money on Google.