When Google announced that it would pull out of China if it had to continue censoring content, Zhao Hun went to the Internet giant’s Beijing headquarters with a bouquet of flowers.
For the popular blogger and human rights activist, the flowers signified his support for Google’s battle for freedom of expression — but they also underscored a loss. Chinese send flowers to funerals. To Zhao and many others here, the January 12 announcement foreshadowed Google’s demise in China — and the end of something else: the notion that China would continue to slowly evolve as a more tolerant nation.
“I used to believe that over time there would be more freedom and openness,” Zhao said. “But I haven’t seen it so far. I feel lost.”
“When I meet something unfamiliar, my first reaction is to Google it,” said Chen Xiaoqiang, a 30-year-old instructor at a business school, sounding like the average Web-savvy American. “Even when I can’t find my glasses, I have the impulse to search for them on Google.”
“Without Google, our academic research will be seriously affected,” said Ma Yuanye, a 55-year-old biologist based in Kunming in southwest China. “If Google is blocked, we will see nothing but darkness.”
But Google’s exit would mean something else to Chen, Ma and others like them — a kind of abandonment, they say.
Although many interviewed said they supported Google’s decision to confront the Chinese government, they also said its departure would make them feel even more marginalised to the borders of Chinese society, stuck between a state committed to controlling information and a freer outside world.
Even though it didn’t dominate the China market, Google’s presence put pressure on its Chinese competitor, Baidu, to limit questionable practices such as mixing ads with search results.
There are ways to work around the government barriers. Some Internet users join a virtual private network that allows them to jump what is known as China’s Great Firewall and access the uncensored Web.
But only an estimated 400,000 Chinese have accounts with commercial VPN services, paying between $25 and $40 a year. And the Chinese government blocks the free VPN sites.
In the end, as is true in most places, Google matters here.
It has been targeted by the government for months.
On June 18, China’s state-run television launched an attack on the American company, accusing it of providing links to pornographic content.
A reporter on air with a computer screen next to him entered the search term for “son.” The result, he claimed, was “mother-son incest.”
Later that night, the popular “Focus Interview” program featured an interview with a university student named Gao Ye. Gao recounted how one of his classmates became fixated with pornography after searching for it on Google.
But then problems began. Online researchers discovered that Gao was not just a student but an intern at the TV station, casting doubts on his on-air claims.
Online researchers also turned up evidence of large-scale searches for “mother son incest” from Internet service provider addresses located near the TV station, leading some to conclude that the Google search had been fixed from the outset.
It is unclear how the attacks on Google might have played into the company’s decision to vow to stop censoring its search engine. Google spokespeople have declined to comment.
What does appear certain is that Google is following through with its threat to close at least its Google.cn search engine.
The Chinese Business News newspaper on Friday quoted an unidentified business agent close to Google as saying the firm would cease some operations in April. A Google spokesperson declined to comment.
Earlier Chinese news reports cited official sources saying discussions between the company and the government are at an impasse.
There’s talk that Tencent, a South African-Chinese joint venture, might be planning to start its own search engine. Even the state-run New China News Agency might get into the game.
Baidu has seen its stock jump almost 50 per cent since Google’s January announcement.
For its part, the Chinese government has looked at the Google’s threats with alarm, although publicly it has sought to appear unconcerned. Google’s departure would mark the first time that a major corporation has left China since Levi Strauss jeans, which pulled out in 1993 after alleging “pervasive” violations of human rights in the country. (Levi Strauss returned to China in 2008.)
The government has sought to frame the Google fight as another example of American imperialism seeking to keep China down.
“The United States has been weakened by the international financial crisis and its wars against terrorism so the US has shifted its strategic center from the military to the Internet,” said the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party. “Google has become a tool of the U.S. to implement its Internet hegemony.”
That thinking has begun to influence some of Google’s users in China.
“Google knew that China had Internet censorship when they entered the market several years ago, so why didn’t they say anything then?” asked Liao Guanhui, a 29-year-old investor in real estate in the southern province of Guangdong.
“I’m sure there is pressure from the US government. The US is trying to push the Chinese government. But this is irritating. And the Chinese government won’t agree.”
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