The conflict between Google and Beijing has an element of inevitability. The search engine giant’s lifeblood is the free flow of information. China’s government sees communications control as necessary for its political survival. Circumstances contributed to the timing and intensity of the cyber showdown. One is a Chinese leadership jumpy following some of its worst ethnic riots and high levels of rural unrest. Another is evidence that an under-siege Hu Jintao has been singing a nationalist tune to divert attention from his administrative deficiencies. Three are signs Beijing is becoming less friendly to foreign investors as it reconsiders its earlier strategy of becoming a manufacturing-exporting hub for multinationals.
All the above reasons reinforce the others. The Google incident, and the espionage trial of four executives from the Australian firm Rio Tinto, is further evidence of what many have long argued: the arrival of a more nationalistic, assertive China on the international sphere in tandem with a more intolerant Middle Kingdom on the home front. On one level, this has a strategic fallout. It is one reason the US and China are becoming far less polite these days. It has also meant Beijing has undermined its own claims to be a ‘pacific’ rise to power. After all, it was China’s hacking of Google to track down dissidents and steel industrial secrets that triggered the present row — censorship was a secondary and later issue. On another level, it has underlined the potentially subversive nature of the internet, especially in a country where all media are State-controlled. Google is a relatively innocuous technology. But its ability to allow an individual to access information almost anywhere and of any kind makes it the stuff of nightmares for one-party systems. It is another thing that most tech-friendly Chinese can subvert the government’s monitoring by using virtual private networks or proxy software.
China is in a state of transition. But its economic and political rise seems to have reached a crossroads. It is struggling with an aspirational population who have high expectations regarding their government. It is resisting international demands that it take up global responsibilities commensurate with its economic might. And it is debating whether it can or needs to open its political system in the same way it opened up its economy some 40 years ago. The Google kerfuffle indicates that, for now, Beijing prefers to tread a path of caution, if not outright regression.