By Steve Kelman

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Google, China and Internet censorship

The New York Times actually ran the story about Google ending its participation in Chinese Internet censorship as its lead story on Wednesday morning, even ahead of its story on the Haitian earthquake. (The Washington Post ran it second, after the earthquake.) Within a short time of the story breaking on newspaper Web sites Tuesday evening, my Chinese teacher in Boston told me she had gotten a message from a friend in China about a "rumor" about Google's threat to leave China. By Wednesday morning U.S. time, according to my Chinese teacher, half the status updates she saw on Ren Ren, the country's Chinese-language Facebook knockoff, involved the Google story. None of them, she said, defended the Chinese government; all sided with Google and criticized Chinese net censorship.

"Another reason for Chinese students to go abroad," stated one update. Stated another, "Top 1 News on Washington Post; Top 2 news on New York Times. Invisible on” (one of the most popular Chinese Web portals). A third cited a Chinese proverb, "It is better to die when life is a disgrace," meaning that it was better for Google to leave China than to put up with government restrictions. Another showed a photo somebody posted showing the Google logo outside its Beijing headquarters, surrounded with flowers and candles, as for a funeral.

This incident so far reveals a lot of the bundle of contradictions that is China. These critical status updates did themselves appear on a non-blocked Chinese Web site. I checked the Web sites of the two Chinese English-language dailies, China Daily and Global Times (the latter actually published by the Communist Party). China Daily published a brief notice, without any background, provoking a comment (which was published): "It would be nice if this newspaper would tell the whole story...I mean the reasons behind Google's decision. But you can find it yourself...just google it!" Later, China Daily posted a relatively straight news story, though with the slightly provocative title "Google Pullout Threat a Pressure Tactic."

I couldn't find a news story in Global Times, but early Thursday morning (Chinese time, Wednesday evening U.S. time), they posted an editorial, "Google-China Split Would Be a Loss for Both Sides." In words that seem surprising for a Communist Party-sponsored newspaper, the editorial wrote:

Google's “New approach to China,” as spelled out in the title of its recent statement, would do no good to China, either. Should the world's most populous nation fail to provide a foothold to the world's top search engine, it would imply a setback to China and serious loss to China's Net culture. The information highway demands not only safe driving but also free flow of traffic. And, in the interests of the majority's right to know, free flow of information should take precedence in a civil society. In a transitional society like China, the existence of censorship can be justified as allowing full play to multifarious and disorderly search results poses unprecedented risks to vulnerable netizens and social stability. But the government must face up to the challenge of where and how to put the checkpoints on the highway. A sensitive and shrewd government should have the vision and savvy to place the right kind of checkpoints at the right place and at the right time for ensuring the free flow of highway traffic as much as possible in the public.

It's going to be interesting to follow what happens with this. I continue to believe that in the medium run, China can't keep a free Internet from its citizens and still continue to develop as part of a globalized world. Comments from Chinese or American readers?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 14, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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