The search engine company, Google, has done the world a favour by saying it is prepared to forgo accessing the world’s largest online population rather than compromise its integrity. For years, Beijing has run an internet policy that has had two major negatives. The first has been to control its own population’s access to information on the internet, even denying them the ability to anonymously network with others. The second has been to use a hacker’s guise to carry out cyber-espionage against governments and companies across the world.
The international community has generally shrugged at Beijing’s attempts to control the internet. By one account the government employs some 100,000 people to monitor the cyberworld. The argument is made that internet freedom is a domestic legal issue. There is also an assumption that the internet’s own rapid proliferation will eventually defeat even the Chinese government’s resources. The world is — but should not be — passive about the repeated and sustained cyber-attacks emanating from China that are universally believed to be sponsored by Beijing. While always uncomfortable with Chinese censorship, Google seems most concerned about hackers attempting to access its services to penetrate western security and technology firms. While Beijing has been privately ticked off by various governments, Google’s response is the first time a company has publicly warned that the nation’s actions would have consequences.
The disappearance of a search engine used by only a fraction of online Chinese will hardly shake the mandate of heaven. But it would severely tarnish China’s image as an economic investment destination. Like McDonald’s and shiny airports, the Google rectangle is seen as evidence of a country having accepted that global economic integration is in its best interests. When such symbols disappear, investors fear a loss of commitment. Finally, freedom of information and the integrity of social networking lie at the heart of technology-based, high-end service economies. China has come to rule the world of manufactured goods. That formula is producing diminishing returns, as labour costs rise and other competitors emerge. The next stage in its economic development will be about creating the environment that will produce companies like Google. So far, Beijing has shown little aptitude for that much more difficult task.