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Beijing at odds with future in Internet fight

At the elite Tsinghua University here, some students were recently joking they had better download all the Internet information they wanted now in case Google left the country.

world Updated: Jan 18, 2010 01:31 IST
Sharon Lafraniere

At the elite Tsinghua University here, some students were recently joking they had better download all the Internet information they wanted now in case Google left the country.

But to many of the young, well-educated Chinese who are Google’s loyal users here, the company’s threat to leave is in fact no laughing matter. Interviews in Beijing’s downtown and university district indicated that many viewed the possible loss of Google’s maps, translation service, sketching software, access to scholarly papers and search function with real distress.

“How am I going to live without Google?” asked Wang Yuanyuan, a 29-year-old businessman, as he left a convenience store in Beijing’s business district.

China’s Communist leaders have long tried to balance their desire for a thriving Internet and the economic growth it promotes with their demands for political control. The alarm over Google among Beijing’s younger, better-educated and Internet savvy citizens — China’s future elite — shows how wobbly that balancing act can be.

By publicly challenging China’s censorship, Google has stirred up the debate over the government’s claim that constraints on free speech are crucial to political stability and the prosperity that has accompanied it.

Even if it is unlikely to pose any immediate threat to the Communist Party, Google’s move has clearly discomfited the government, Chinese analysts say.

“The average age of Chinese netizens is still very young,” said Hu Yong, a journalism professor at Peking University. “This is a matter of the future and whether the government’s Internet policy wants to fight with the future.

“If this process goes on, more and more people are going to realize that their freedom of information is being infringed upon, and this could bring changes down the line.”

Google may rank a distant second to the Baidu search engine, but its estimated 80 million users are comparatively better educated and wealthier. Surveys show that roughly two-thirds are college educated. A Beijing technology consultant, Kaiser Kuo, describes them as “a potentially very noisy constituency.”