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China: Defending its Core Interest in the World – Part II

Media reports on Google’s redirecting internet searches by Chinese authorities to its uncensored site in Hong Kong have largely presented it as a conflict between two global titans. But the narrow focus of such reporting overlooks that Google’s pull-out was limited, leaving many services in place, and that Chinese authorities have not acted to shut down the company’s Hong Kong detour, notes professor and Chinese internet authority Guobin Yang. He not only analyzes the consequences for both sides – including Google watching as competitors fill the void and China’s need to defend its reputation and history of censorship – but also reveals the potential for reform. China’s leaders are uncertain about the internet’s value for the regime: The tool stirs anger and allows insecure bullies to attack anonymously. But the internet also helps in transparency exposing corruption and encourages accountability. China prefers gradual rather than impulsive change, as was evident when the nation established special economic zones for foreign investment, essentially pilot studies, in the early 1980s to test foreign trade. Expect Chinese authorities to monitor public reaction to Google’s uncensored Hong Kong search engine, and then decide whether an open internet is as useful for them as it is for Chinese citizens. – YaleGlobal

China: Defending its Core Interest in the World – Part II

China could use its tussle with Google to step up Internet reform
Guobin Yang
YaleGlobal, 7 April 2010
Searching for new home: Google's empty office in Beijing after it moved part of its search operation to Hong Kong

NEW YORK: After negotiations failed over uncensored internet searches for China, Google stepped away from China’s web, and news reports and commentaries left the impression of a titanic struggle between the world’s most populated country and most popular search engine.

In fact, though, Google remains present in China, and by transferring Chinese search requests to its uncensored server in Hong Kong, Google may even be the harbinger of reform for China’s internet. Just as the creation of Special Economic Zones in the 1980s gradually opened China to foreign trade, Google’s move could provide an opportunity for the Chinese leadership to experiment with a special internet zone in Hong Kong and exemplify the benefits of openness.

After four years of operation in China and suffering recent attacks on its email system, particularly accounts held by human-rights activists, allegedly from hackers in China, Google began rerouting requests for to on March 22.

Media pundits warned of darkness descending in China, offering reminders of Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil.”

Media pundits warned of darkness descending in China, offering reminders of Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil.” The most recent hyped reports emerged March 30, after Google disruptions for users in mainland China spurred instant media speculations about Chinese censors taking action against Google. Instead, the company server was down.

It may be just a matter of time before users in mainland China completely lose access to Google. Confrontations between Google and China could escalate. So far, at least, the clash is much less dramatic than what’s been described by most media reports. 

First of all, contrary to popular perceptions, Google has not closed internet services in mainland China. It not only retains its research and development operations, but keeps most of its search services there. As of this writing, Google’s video search service (, online shopping service (, Google map (, Google music (, Google translation (, Google finance (, and a host of other services still operate under the domain name. The main services redirected to Hong Kong are Google Images, Google News and the main search page.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Google has not closed internet services in mainland China.

Second, partly because many Google services are still available, Google’s move has not significantly affected mainland internet users. Survey findings published in the February 2010 issue of Nature show that Chinese academic communities rely heavily on such services as Google Scholar, and the site remains available under the domain name ( Although Google has not published data on access from mainland users to previously censored content such as the Tiananmen protests of 1989, do not expect to see major changes in Chinese netizens’ online search behavior. Like internet users elsewhere, the average Chinese user is more likely to seek entertainment rather than politics online. Those searching for political content know how to scale the fire walls.

Third, transnational corporations have not rallied to Google’s crusade against Chinese censors. The US domain-name registration company announced it would no longer register domain names in China. But no other major Western firms operating in China are in a hurry to leave the Chinese market – certainly not Google’s main competitors like Yahoo! and Microsoft. For global firms in China, therefore, it’s business as usual.

Fourth, there are worries that the Chinese search engine market will become less innovative in Google’s absence and Baidu will become a monopoly. While legitimate, these worries may be unwarranted. After all, Google has not abandoned the Chinese market, and Baidu’s monopoly is far from secure, facing competition from Yahoo! and Tencent, among others. Even without access to Google, Chinese users are not stuck with Baidu. More importantly, search engines are only part of the internet market. When it comes to the Chinese internet culture, one cannot overstate the power of social networking websites and good old portals, which encompass gigantic online communities. A check of the Alexa web information site showed Google ranking first in the world and ranking eighth, trailed closely by China’s two largest portal sites, ranked 10, and, ranked 14. Thanks to the dynamism and social productivity of their online communities, portals remain popular and competitive in China.

Of course, the China-Google spat has not been free of costs. By far, the biggest damage has been to China’s national image.

Of course, the China-Google spat has not been free of costs. By far, the biggest damage has been to China’s national image. Although Chinese censorship of the internet has long been in the spotlight, Google’s move provided the most potent ammunition to critics for renewed condemnation. Activists in and outside China hailed Google for taking a bold stance in defense of internet freedom.

Yet despite Google’s provocative style and media hype about an epochal duel, official reactions in China have been cool, with Communist Party authorities playing down the spat in the domestic media.

Beijing also resisted politicizing the issue. Despite Chinese media comments about Google’s links with US spy agencies, the government  has not linked the conflict to Sino-US relations. The regime will calculate how Google’s new approach will affect its own legitimacy and that will determine whether, to what extent, and for how long authorities allow rerouted and uncensored to be accessible from the mainland.

Google’s moderate approach will not necessarily undermine the legitimacy of the regime. It may even be an opportunity in disguise for the Chinese leadership to experiment with reforming its stringent internet policies.  

However passionate Chinese citizens are for free speech or broader political change, nowadays people are more likely to favor a gradualist approach.

Gradualist and experimental reforms are consistent with China’s pragmatist developmental strategy. In recent years, the Chinese government has demonstrated some degree of flexibility in responding to citizen demands and inputs. It has launched initiatives to strengthen the channels of state-citizen communication, such as by promulgating information disclosure acts and institutionalizing public hearings on environmental issues. Wary as they are of the internet’s subversive potential, top leaders have publicly acknowledged the web’s constructive role in channeling public opinion and exposing corruption.

However passionate Chinese citizens are for free speech or broader political change, nowadays people are more likely to favor a gradualist approach. Chinese intellectuals wholeheartedly embraced Western-style democracy in the 1980s. They have since become less sure of themselves or a Western system transplanted to Chinese soil, not the least because they have seen troubles inside even the strongest Western democracies. Still critical of authoritarianism, they have no clear vision, or confidence, of a workable solution to the political challenges facing China today. The rise of a strong public discourse of civil society in China, rather than strident calls for democracy, reflects this intellectual dilemma. Building a civil society is at least a useful first step. Despite the political control of the internet, a vibrant current of online activism has surged for years.

Maintaining open access to Google’s Chinese search engine in Hong Kong would be consistent with this evolutionary logic of China’s reform agenda and will be an instructive way of testing whether a freer internet will spell more or less trouble for the government. Chinese leaders will find that a better informed citizenry can help curb corruption, promote social justice, hold government officials accountable, and aid in  enforcing laws and regulations.

At a March 27 conference in Shenzhen, several prominent internet entrepreneurs called for the establishment of a Special Internet Zone in Shenzhen, China’s first special economic zone which helped to jump-start economic reform. Perhaps the rerouted could serve as the first of such a free special internet zone. Success would show that a more open internet is in the interest of the Chinese citizenry.

Guobin Yang is an associate professor at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of “The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online.” Click here for an excerpt.

Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

10 April 2010
Chinese internet blogs/forums are filled with messages that say Google is an American dog, doing the business of the US State Dept or CIA.
In any case, 80 per cent of Chinese who responded to Global Times polls agreed to Google to stick to Chinese laws.
There is also a cost to Google's image - not just in China, but also in the wider non-Western world.
There is no need for "special internet zone" in China. Like the city state Singapore, China will gradually liberalize, at the pace where internal and external conditions permit it.
-MatthewTan , Singapore
9 April 2010
Although his views are thoughtfully and articulately presented, some of Dr. Yang's remarks seem to be a bit off the mark.
First of all, he writes that "Beijing also resisted politicizing the [Google] issue." But Beijing's public pronouncements, particularly through the state-run media, show otherwise. Their comments were intensely political. They accused, for example, the US government of collaborating with Google to embarrass the Chinese nation, as Dr. Yang alludes to, but for some reason downplays. Beijing banned any positive, non-state-led commentary on Google in the media or the Internet, while allowing America- and Google-bashing to flourish. They wrapped the Google affair together with other tensions e.g., Tibet, Taiwan and the renminbi, as efforts to unfairly blame China for American problems. As the China Daily, a state-run newspaper cutely put it on 3/25/10, "Top executives of Google got involved in American politics rather deeply, and someone may be thinking about starting his political career. Google completely misjudged the situation, and did not grasp that Chinese people are extremely averse to external threats and pressure." This is a common and disconcerting refrain from China: many disagreements between the West or the US and China are played up by Beijing as yet another aggressive foreign invasion of the Chinese nation, a rehash of the Opium War.
Second of all, Dr. Yang argues that Google retains many of its services in China and that things are going generally well for it. This appears to be incorrect. Many large Chinese companies, like the two largest mobile phone companies, China Mobile and China Unicom, had business relationships with Google that they ended almost immediately after Google's move to Hong Kong. In China, it makes sense not to be too friendly with a company that is in ill favor with Beijing.
Lastly, and on a related note, Dr. Yang is incorrect, I believe, in asserting that the Google affair has not impacted the relationship between China and multinationals. True, only GoDaddy has followed Google's footsteps. But only a little time has passed. Certainly, there is a growing sense that Beijing discriminates against foreign companies in favor of its own. The tragedy of Google is not just the free speech issues. It is the way the Chinese media made up reports that Google searches lead to pornographic content or addiction. (For this, see the March 20 article in the Washington Post.) It is the way Google's partners withdrew from Google after it was labeled by Beijing as collaborating with Washington to attack the Chinese people. It is the way that Beijing issued blanket controls over the media, preventing almost any positive opinion about Google to arise in the press. In other words, it is the way that Beijing uses its enormous power, in the media and industry, to make it difficult for Google to thrive.
Foreign multinationals are realizing that as China's clout grows, its government realizes it can push foreign companies around to favor its own companies. As that continues, the multinationals may feel less and less inclined to do everything Beijing says, and more and more inclined to support policies that may give them greater counter-leverage -- like tariffs on Chinese imports into the US or a revaluation of the renminbi.
Generally, Dr. Yang seems convinced that China has acted carefully and responsibly and will always behave carefully and responsibly. The Chinese leaders and their people are extremely smart, and there are many voices among them who see it as important and valuable to keep peaceable relations with the outside world. So I might be willing to give Dr. Yang the benefit of the doubt. But it would be foolish to assume, I think, based on a review of the historical evidence, that China will ALWAYS be peaceful and pleasant and embracing of outsiders. With all due respect, I feel that Dr. Yang is looking at the recent Google affair and Beijing's recent behavior in an overly rosy way. In observing the Google debate, it is clear to me that while things could have been worse and some restraint was shown, some other darker strains were shown as well: nationalism, a feeling of victimization, and a powerful government apparatus that used its control of the media to spread falsehoods and incite anger against an allegedly cruel and evil foreigner. No one know for sure what shape such sentiments will take as China rapidly increases in power.
-Anonymous , US
9 April 2010
Google will be one of the keys to install a democratic system in China. Not a system like its usual in Europe or the western hemisphere but anyway a democracy.
-Michael , Germany