|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 Google.cn to google.com.hk 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 (video.google.cn/), online shopping service (www.google.cn/gouwu), Google map (ditu.google.cn/), Google music (www.google.cn/music/homepage), Google translation (translate.google.cn/#), Google finance (www.google.cn/finance), and a host of other services still operate under the Google.cn 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 Google.cn domain name (scholar.google.cn/schhp?hl=zh-CN). 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 GoDaddy.com 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 Baidu.com ranking eighth, trailed closely by China’s two largest portal sites qq.com, ranked 10, and sina.com.cn, 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 Google.com.hk 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 Google.cn 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.