The Google vs China standoff

CircleID has an update on the latest Google vs China standoff:

Earlier this year Google made the announcement that it is reviewing its business operations in China and considering possible closure due to China's cyberattacks and limits on free speech. Google today stopped censoring its search services (Google Search, Google News, and Google Images) on its chinese website, and users visiting are now being redirected to Hong Kong's site, David Drummond, Googles Chief Legal Officer writes:

"Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on has been hard. We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from is a sensible solution to the challenges we've faced—it's entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China. We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services."

Also since it is highly likely that the Chinese government will block access to Google's uncensored services, the company has launched a specific site which updates regularly each day and keeps users informed of which Google services are available in China.

The entire self-censorship proposition is interesting.  Google appears to have found a temporary way to weasel around China’s requirements by redirecting visits from to, where presumably these censorship requirements do not exist (but I thought Hong Kong was now a part of China… or have the Chinese not decided to extend their tentacles there quite yet and leave them alone?).  Google’s relationship with China has never been great.  The government supports its own local horse, Baidu, which is the most popular search engine there.

From PC World:

That same day, Li Yizhong, China's minister of industry and information technology, warned Google not to stop censoring search results on "If you don't respect Chinese laws, you are unfriendly and irresponsible, and you will bear the consequences," Li said, according to a report carried by the official China Daily newspaper.

It will be interesting to see who will break first.  China is already reacting:

Mainland Chinese users still could not see much of the unfiltered Hong Kong search results Tuesday because government firewalls either disabled searches for highly objectionable terms completely or blocked links to certain results. That had typically been the case before Google’s action, only now millions more visitors were liable to encounter the disrupted access to an uncensored site.

China’s biggest cellular communications company, China Mobile, was expected to cancel a deal that had placed Google’s search engine on its mobile Internet home page, used by millions of people daily. In interviews, business executives close to industry officials said the company was planning to scrap the deal under government pressure, despite the fact that China Mobile has yet to contract with a replacement.

Similarly, China’s second-largest mobile company, China Unicom, was said by analysts and others to have delayed or killed the imminent introduction of a cellphone based on Google’s Android platform. One major Internet portal,, already had ceased using Google to power its search engine.

What spurred this latest Google/Chinese standoff were the attacks on Google, linked to Chinese hackers, that attempted to steal information from its corporate database.  In response, Google said it would stop self-censoring.  The Chinese government warned Google not to do that.

To some western observers, what Google is doing is good for the Internet.  Censorship is bad, freedom of speech is good, and Google should “take one for the team”.  Yet it isn’t as simple as that.

One Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that China now speaks of Internet freedom in the context of one of its “core interests” — issues of sovereignty on which Beijing will brook no intervention. The most commonly cited core issues are Taiwan and Tibet. The addition of Internet freedom is an indication that the issue has taken on nationalistic overtones.

If you’ll allow me to delve into my own political analysis, the Chinese government views national security and internal stability different than western democracies, especially the United States.  The US is bordered by two oceans and effectively controls the entire continent of North America.  There is no threat from Canada in the north, and Mexico is too unstable in the south (not to mention its geographically harsh terrain).  The US has inherent stability because it doesn’t need to worry about a foreign country invading it nor devote resources to defending its borders militarily.  This gives its citizens and government clear advantages; the US is in a very fortunate position simply due to geography and its government can afford a more laissez-faire attitude with regards to freedom of expression.

China is different.  For much of its history, China has been fractured.  It has been invaded before (most recently during World War II) and is internally always trying to balance the struggle between urban and rural areas.  It is a country of 1.2 billion people and there is always tension between the poor rural areas (which make up 2/3 of the population) and the wealthier urban areas (which make up 1/3 of the population).  When there is massive disparages and wealth and unemployment results, China can become unstable, and the government fears that instability.  It is only through a strong authoritarian government that they are able to maintain control.  One of the Chinese government’s main priorities is maintaining high levels of employment.  An unemployed populace is an unhappy populace; and with 1.2 billion citizens to worry about, the government is concerned about maintaining internal cohesion.

When China is divided, it becomes more difficult to defend because of its vastness.  That is why the Chinese government clamps down so heavily on human rights and dissenting views, as well as Internet freedom.  They fear that if the spread of anti-government propaganda got out of hand, it would create shockwaves and ripples throughout the country that would destabilize it and leave it vulnerable.  That is why they have grasped onto the issue of Internet freedom because it strikes at the very heart of Chinese grand strategy and policy.

The point of this little analysis is not to defend the actions of the Chinese government or advocate Google’s position, but rather, to illustrate the point that differences in the way the west vs the Chinese see Internet freedom is cultural.  It is not as if the Chinese can simply say “Oh, you know what?  We’re wrong about freedom of expression, let’s change our minds.”  It clashes with its cultural and political values.  The west says “People should be allowed to see whatever they want” whereas China says “We need to exercise control over the population in order to preserve our national sovereignty.”

Google is not going to win the battle by pushing the Chinese to change its mind, that simply is not going to happen.  It’s a shift that will take years, if not decades, to accomplish.


Billboard of Google in Taipei, Taiwan, while I was there in October 2008.

Comments (2)
  1. My take is that the ruling party in China will crush anything that threatens its power to rule. Nothing matters more that preserving the status quo, including its global reputation.

    A change of government is simply out of the question – the Communist party membership has too much to lose.

    Since most challenges to the ruling order come from within, China suppresses human rights, basic freedoms, Western-stylel democracy, and all ideas that it perceives as potential threats to its rule.

  2. Mike Chandler says:

    What a spirited defense of free speech.  It is good to know they have only the best interests of their people at heart.  Thanks for sharing.  

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