Foreign Policy Blogs

Just Google "China"

The other day The Wall Street Journal ran a good summary of China’s conflict with Google.  It looks like we’re in for another international war of words but, this time, it won’t be a classic Cold War confrontation over political-military issues, but rather a war of words over words — censorship, to be precise.  China’s government mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, fired the latest salvo yesterday:

…U.S. media have gone all out to “promote” the “Google issue” and American politicians repeated great “noises” in accusation of China’s internet management policies and insinuate the nation’s restriction on “internet freedom”…These words and deeds, which have taken no heed of reality, are definitely aimed to impair or tarnish China’s image

It is not difficult, however, to see the shadow of the US government behind the highly politicized “Google” case. Shortly after Google threatened to quit [China], Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton issued a statement and chastised China on its censorship …

Some U.S. political figures would defend in a high-profile manner the “internet freedom” as the “diplomatic strategy,” whose goal is to meddle in other nations’ affairs on the one hand and to consolidate American hegemony in cyberspace on the other hand….

Around the “Google” incident, the United States has not only focused on the commercial interest of domestic companies and safeguard its own national security and interests rights, but also is trying hard to limit China’s cyberspace. This is something totally unacceptable…To date, Google executives have expressed the hope to go on negotiating with the Chinese government and continue to stay in China, and Google has perhaps come to realize that China could do without it, whereas Google will definitely have no future without China [emphasis added].

Among the fascinating and disturbing aspects to this commentary is the way it resembles the rhetoric of the Cold War era, in which a nefarious and “hegemonistic” Washington is depicted as acting in lock step with American corporate interests.  The State Department and Google team up to “meddle” in Chinese affairs and monopolize China’s “cyberspace.”  The Chinese people are told to be indignant.

But the larger point at issue appears to be the unfettered access to the Internet in China.  Several years ago, Google agreed to allow some censorship in exchange for the right to run its search engines in China.  As a result, more people use Google in China than in any other country except the United States. Google made a profit and many Chinese have more access to information.

But this was also a bad deal because it established the precedent of the Chinese government having the right to censor the Internet.   Clinton put it this way in her own remarks:

In the last year, we’ve seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained.

As the NYT reported (as also noted by FPA blogger Chris Dolen), the most effective way for the Internet to be censored is through cyber attacks against the computers that support Google’s search engines.  This is precisely what happened earlier this month and resulted in what the Times called “[this] ugly exchange of accusations between Washington and Beijing.”

No one outside of China knows exactly what happened in the cyberattack against Google’s Chinese computers — only that the “footprint” for the attack was inside China.  Perhaps the Chinese authorities had nothing to do with it, but regardless we are faced with the fragility of the the world of Internet-based access to information.  If governments may overtly censor topics they consider sensitive, they may also covertly attack the very institutions that make that information available to millions of people.

  • Google’s defiance of China’s censorship mandate illustrates the power of corporate social responsibility initiatives to influence and reshape the repressive policies of authoritarian regimes. Secretary Clinton’s recent remarks about the” information curtain” dividing the world, reminded me of the apartheid era where much greater injustice and unspeakable acts against humanity were challenged and ultimately overcome through the use of corporate codes of conduct.

    Given the success of codes of conduct in ending apartheid, we should look at applying the same principles to lift the information curtain China and in other repressive countries.

    This was the subject of an article on the International Business Law Advisor—The Great Firewall of China: How Lessons from the Apartheid Era Can Lift the Information Curtain


    It is difficult to say that we are looking at anything more than a relatively highly-principled company discovering that progress on human rights in China is not linear. At a political level, this is no more than a continuation of the US-China human rights debate and will probably see progress at the same slow pace as the overall debate. Its difficult to argue that internet access is a more profound human right than many others that are restricted in China. Hilary Clinton’s comment raises the question of whether she is seeing the “free flow”of information as a human right or an economic right.

    From a narrow perspective of the extent of state power and leaving aside the value-base which makes many of us find the Chinese government’s actions unacceptable, it would be interesting to compare how the Chinese Government’s methods (not targets) compare with those used by our own governments in pursuit of those that are considered a threat to our societies.

  • Google and China are bringing up a 21st century battle of democracy and freedom verse Communism and restricted personal freedom. When we started using cloud computing systems we saw the HUGE area of security problems being created in cross country internet usage. Thrown in that the entire world is “outsourcing” computer stuff to Southeast Asian countries, and you have to plan for these socio-technology issues going forward. We study search demand/supply trends from around the world to find profitable niches and products. A niche, or hot predictions, is not just a demand side issue, but a supply/demand curve. If you predict IPHONE apps will take off, and there are already 100,000 aps, then you aren’t going to hit that one. If you see that demand for cell phone radiation shields is going nuts and there are only two suppliers, then you can be pretty sure that it will be a good year for those 2 supplies. The software at studies both the demand (search volume) and supply (think “results” in Google). The Google Phone is generating much more buzz right now then say the Apple Tablet.
    Here is a video on what I mean..


Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy