Google and China: from drama to crisis in one easy step

This morning’s Observer column.

ONE USEFUL spin-off from the developing story of Google’s difficulties with the Chinese communist regime is that it may finally spur the west to discard the rose-tinted spectacles through which it has chosen to view China in the past decade – and not before time.

The west’s response to China’s rapid industrialisation was determined by a recipe blending three parts greed with one part naivety. The greed was understandable: the stupendous rate of Chinese economic growth triggered a desperate desire for a slice of the action. Everywhere, whether in companies or universities, one found a palpable determination to “get into China”. In the political world, we saw western governments scramble to out-do one another in fawning upon visiting Chinese potentates.

Still, greed is part of human nature; we have to make a living, and often behave reprehensibly while doing so. What was less forgivable about the west’s approach was the implicit naivety. It was a product of wishful thinking brought about by market triumphalism, the belief that, in the end, it is impossible to have a capitalist economy without also having liberal political institutions…


  • Full text of Hilary Clinton’s speech on Internet Freedom is here. And Clay Shirky has done a useful abridged version.
  • Microsoft, of course, has no problems with Chinese censorship. Indeed Steve Ballmer thinks the Google view is nuts, at least according to this report:

    At a conference in Houston on Thursday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer spoke critically of Google’s recent decision to stop censoring its search results in China. Paraphrasing some of Ballmer’s statements, Forbes says Ballmer called it an “irrational business decision” on Google’s part.

    Ballmer suggested that Google’s decision to no longer filter out internet searches objectionable to the Chinese government was an irrational business decision. After all, Ballmer said, the U.S. imports oil from Saudi Arabia despite the censorship that goes on in that country.

    “The U.S. is the most extreme when it comes to free speech,” said Ballmer, noting however that even the U.S. bans child pornography, while France bans internet access to Nazi imagery.

    Forbes says Ballmer made the statements during the Q&A session after a speech to oil company executives. Ballmer also said that Bing will comply with requests to censor its search results “if the Chinese government gives us proper legal notice.”

  • Perry Anderson has a terrific piece about Sinomania in the current issue of the London Review of Books.