What the Google spat reveals about China

James Fallows — who recently returned to the US after a stint in China, whence he used to send very perceptive dispatches — has an interesting perspective in The Atlantic about the Google decision.

He thinks it represents a significant moment — “Significant for Google; and while only marginally significant for developments inside China potentially very significant for China’s relations with the rest of the world.”

In terms of its impact on Chinese Internet users, Fallows thinks that it’s not such a big deal.

In terms of information flow into China, this decision probably makes no real difference at all. Why? Anybody inside China who really wants to get to Google.com — or BBC or whatever site may be blocked for the moment — can still do so easily, by using a proxy server or buying (for under $1 per week) a VPN service. Details here. For the vast majority of Chinese users, it’s not worth going to that cost or bother, since so much material is still available in Chinese from authorized sites. That has been the genius, so far, of the Chinese “Great Firewall” censorship system: it allows easy loopholes for anyone who might get really upset, but it effectively keeps most Chinese Internet users away from unauthorized material.

The real significance, he argues, is that it may signify that China is entering its own “Bush-Cheney era”.

There are also reasons to think that a difficult and unpleasant stage of China-U.S. and China-world relations lies ahead. This is so on the economic front, as warned about here nearly a year ago with later evidence here. It may prove to be so on the environmental front — that is what the argument over China’s role in Copenhagen is about. It is increasingly so on the political-liberties front, as witness Vaclav Havel’s denunciation of the recent 11-year prison sentence for the man who is in many ways his Chinese counterpart, Liu Xiaobo. And if a major U.S. company — indeed, Google has been ranked the #1 brand in the world — has concluded that, in effect, it must break diplomatic relations with China because its policies are too repressive and intrusive to make peace with, that is a significant judgment.


In a strange and striking way there is an inversion of recent Chinese and U.S. roles. In the switch from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, the U.S. went from a president much of the world saw as deliberately antagonizing them to a president whose Nobel Prize reflected (perhaps desperate) gratitude at his efforts at conciliation. China, by contrast, seems to be entering its Bush-Cheney era. For Chinese readers, let me emphasize again my argument that China is not a “threat” and that its development is good news for mankind. But its government is on a path at the moment that courts resistance around the world. To me, that is what Google’s decision signifies.

This echoes something that Mark Anderson has been saying for ages — now reprinted on his blog:

Too often, today, sloppy thinkers and Western optimists assume that China is just a Big America, or a Big Vietnam, or a Fast India – or their Next Big Business Partner.

Wrong. At a time when the world thinks the communist model has been proved obsolete, China remains a communist country. In fact, under the current leader, Hu Jintao, human rights in China have recently suffered and are now in serious decline, according to Amnesty International-USA, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and others.

China has tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of human censors monitoring citizen clicks and comments on the China government–controlled Internet. When my friend’s teenage daughter (a U.S. citizen) taught English there last year, police came to her apartment and grilled her about specific computer entries she had made. When one of Australia’s top mining firms, Rio Tinto, refused to allow China’s Chinalco to double its ownership interest last year (to 18%), China arrested local CEO (and Australian citizen) Stern Hu and three managers, who remain in jail today, under espionage charges. China denies any connection. In politics, thought, and business, China remains a police state.

We all refer to China as “China” now, as though it’s just One of the Gang, like “Ohio” or “Denmark”; after all, it’s a member of the G7, right? Just another market economy finding its way in the global river of events —

No, it’s not. And it isn’t in the G7. In fact, it isn’t even part of the G8, which includes Russia.

So now ask yourself: When is the last time you called Communist China, Communist China?

You’d better get used to it. There is no indication that the Chinese Communist Party has any intention of giving up any power at all, or of changing its power structure. In fact, discussion of anything political is basically off limits inside China; it is not done. Ah, you heard that there were some small moves toward shadow property rights in China? Sorry, that move has recently been reversed.

Mark goes on to itemise what he sees as the main tenets of Chinese policy. In his (bleak) view, they are:

1. Steal Intellectual Property.

2. Use Slave Labor Rates to Become the Low-Cost Producer of All Goods and Services.

3. Sell Stolen IP Back As Global Exports.

4. Industrial Policy: Subsidize Key Industries.

5. Prevent (or Restrict) Unwanted Imports.

6. Use Currency Manipulation to provide artificial aid to your export companies.

7. Price for Export, Suppress Domestic Consumption, and use domestic savings to drive the above policies.

8. Create the Appearance of Free and Fair Trade, Without the Fact.

9. Encourage Foreign Direct Investment – But Don’t Allow Controlling Ownership.

These are just the headlines — you need to read the full post to get the detail.