There is not much that I can add to Google’s A new approach to China. What does all this mean? In the words of Zhou Enlai, “It’s too soon to tell.” A quick scan of the Xinhua home page turns up China seeks clarity on Google’s intentions buried in the Sci/Tech section. It has been up for nearly 18 hours now, and to the best of my knowledge, it is the only official statement that has come from the government. The only official mentioned in the article is Xi Wei, deputy director of the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center, who told Xinhua: “I am sorry, I can’t say anything. I am not clear about the case.”
The official silence is not a surprise, and who knows how long the silence will continue. While the government is quite adept at framing five-year plans, they have still not learned how to respond to the unexpected. The image I always conjure up when the government finds itself on the hot seat needing a response has everything to do with the Keystone Cops sans the humor (though it might be fun to be a fly on the wall). I imagine that no one knows what to say, or who it is supposed to say whatever it is that needs to said. This is the thin ice that, if it cracks, can swallow a career along with the futures of everyone in the requisite support cloud. To be forever known as the one who fouled the Google pitch can be the road to a future in Ningxia, or slightly worse, prison. (Read the Tang poets. They’re current.)
The only thing that’s clear at the moment is that there will one day be a response – maybe today, maybe next week, no one knows. Until there is a response you can bet that foreign press briefings at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be real ‘monkey with a football’ affairs. I put this in the same category as the Olympic torch disaster, where the torch became China’s torch protected by a platoon of Blue Goons, as everyone completely missed the fact that what they thought the world thought of them was not what the world thought of them at all. But this time Zhang Yimou won’t be able to dazzle everyone into a choreographed state of forgetting.
What form the response will take is only a crapshoot to a point. Don’t hope for anything that might look like an ‘opening.’ That’s not how these guys work. I would not be a bit surprised if the response will take the form of a deeper and heavier blocking blanket. In the narrow world of the Party guys there is not much room to move.
The international take on Google’s actions is, as you know, all over the map. Here are a few links which I think are worth reading.
James Fallows, Atlantic: The Google news: China enters its Bush-Cheney era
Rebecca MacKinnon, Guardian: Will Google stand up to France and Italy, too?
Evgeny Morozov, Foreign Policy: Doubting the sincerity of Google’s threat
Rebecca MacKinnon, Wall Street Journal: Google Gets On the Right Side of History
Evgeny Morozov, Foreign Policy: Google + US government = Love?
Jonathan Watts, Guardian: How internet giant Google turned on gatekeepers of China’s GFW
Adam Minter, Shanghai Scrap: Google’s cowardice
There is a lot of misperception that Google is doing this solely as a statement against censorship, based on the cyber attacks last month. I’m not buying it; it’s much too simplified an explanation for a very politically complicated issue. I tend to agree with Morozov’s “very crude and cynical” read, though I am not so sure if it is either crude or cynical.
Here is my very crude and cynical (Eastern European) reading of the situation: Google was in need of some positive PR to correct its worsening image (especially in Europe, where concerns about privacy are mounting on a daily basis). Google.cn is the goat that would be sacrificed, for it will generate most positive headlines and may not result in devastating losses to Google’s business (Google.cn holds roughly 30 percent of the Chinese market).
All the talk about cybersecurity breaches seems epiphenomenal to this plan; it may simply be the easiest way to frame Google’s decision without triggering too many “why, oh why?” questions. Besides, there is no better candy for U.S. media and politicians than the threat of an all-out cyber-Armageddon initiated by Chinese hackers. I can assure everyone that at least a half of all discussions that Google’s move would spur would be about the need to make America more secure from cyberattacks. No better timing to throw more terrorism-related meat to the U.S. public (“what if they read Obama’s email?”).
But in the end, it all hardly matters. What’s happening is happening for whatever the initial reason may have been, and it has spun into a yarn that has a strut all it’s own. What it will eventually be is anyone’s guess, though the following piece from the WSJ tells the story as best as it can be told: Irish Bookie Lays Odds On Google Pullout From China.
Update before I even publish:
In a statement posted on the State Council Information Office website, cabinet spokesman Wang Chen warned against pornography, cyber-attacks, online fraud and “rumors,” saying that government and Internet media have a responsibility to shape public opinion.
The statement said China itself was a victim of hacker attacks, and that Beijing resolutely opposed hacking.
Wang’s comments, Beijing’s first official reaction after Google threatened to quit China over cyber-attacks, gave no indication that China — which has the world’s biggest number of Internet users at 360 million — would give ground.
I always love the pornography insertion. I live within a few minutes walking distance of several brothels. There used to be one within spitting distance of the front gate of our complex, though it was closed in the lead-up to the Olympics. But I guess that’s another issue.