Why Google Should Not Quit
The day David Drummond of Google posted his blog entry about Google’s possible exit from China, I had just ended a research trip to Beijing and was on my flight back to New York. While in China, I used Gmail to contact my friends there and keep in touch with my family in New York. I used Google Scholar and Google Documents to continue my research and writing. Google News was my main source of world news.
I was shocked to learn that the most powerful internet giant had been the target of successful cyber-attacks, reportedly by hackers from China. Even more shocking was the news of Google’s possible suspension of its China operations. Should that happen, the eight million Google users in China, myself included when I travel there, would have to do without all those fine Google services.
Yet Google’s “new approach to China,” announced in an unassuming style in Mr. Drummond’s short blog entry, is deeply appealing: to stop Google’s censoring of its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, (censorship is required by the Chinese government) and close its operations there if negotiations with the government fail.
This decision won Google near universal admiration in the Western press. It was essentially a declaration of independence from, if not in, the Chinese market. Like the most famous such declaration in history, it is aimed at a higher good – freedom, this time internet freedom. Google deserves admiration for directly challenging China’s political control of the internet. Its embracing of internet freedom at the possible cost of losing an immense market is noble.
The question is: How will Google’s exit affect internet freedom in China?
As many observers have noted, Google’s decision will probably have little if any direct impact on the Chinese government’s will to control the internet. At any rate, instead of speculating on the whims of Chinese elite politics, let me briefly consider the implications of Google’s absence for Chinese internet users, or netizens as they are often called.
Observers have frequently commented on the Chinese government’s tightening of internet control. However, there are just as many media stories, both in China and the West, of internet activism and protest among Chinese netizens. Chinese citizens are using the internet actively to express dissent, organize protests, expose corruption, and fight for their rights and interests, even as their access to free internet information is increasingly curtailed by policies of control. The most famous recent case is a netizens’ protest against the Green Dam-Youth Escort filtering software in 2009, which forced the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to annul its initiative to pre-install software on computers sold in China. This paradoxical situation of increased internet control alongside growing online activism led an influential blogger to remark at last year’s China Blogger Conference that “online freedom is deteriorating due to the tightened controls....However, we feel we have more freedom to express our opinions.”
What does this blogger mean by saying that online freedom in China is deteriorating and yet there is more freedom for expressing opinions?
It seems that his notions of freedom may correspond with Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative freedom and positive freedom. For Berlin, negative freedom, or “freedom from,” means the absence of obstacles external to people, whereas positive freedom, or “freedom to,” refers to people’s sense of self-determination and freedom to act. Negative freedom places higher premiums on external conditions.
In the Chinese case, policies of internet control limit negative freedom. They are obstacles to free speech. Yet under the conditions of contracting negative freedom, Chinese internet users choose neither resignation nor apathy nor despair. Instead, the history of internet development in the past 15 years shows that the more negative freedom is curtailed, the more engaged Chinese netizens are in the struggle for internet expression and the more creative that expression becomes. Thus, as the Great Firewall gets more sophisticated, so do netizens’ skills for scaling it.
In particular, Chinese netizens are so engaged because they are versatile enough to exploit the deteriorating conditions of internet expression. A case concerning Google’s rival search engine Baidu illustrates how.
Controlling over 60 percent of the search engine market in China (as opposed to Google’s 30 percent), Baidu’s search engine is interfaced with, and partly powered by, its hugely successful online communities. The largest of these online communities is devoted to the popular American computer game World of Warcraft. It is a gaming community where apparently, members are not interested in social or political issues. Yet, as I have written elsewhere, it is in this community that one of the most influential internet incidents of 2009 happened.
In that incident, an anonymous user of a popular Baidu forum posted a message on July 16, 2009, titled “Jia Junpeng, your mother wants you to go home to eat.” The message has only twelve Chinese characters in its title and no other content. Yet, it received seven million hits and 300,000 comments within one day. Large portal sites like sina.com, netease.com, people.com and newspapers like Southern Metropolis began to cover it, adding to its popularity. A cryptic posting was thus turned into a national media event.
As a result of this incident, a bizarre and seemingly meaningless posting became a powerful symbol for expressing dissension. To petition for the release of a detained blogger, a group of blogger-activists substituted the detainee’s name for the unknown Jia Junpeng and sent postcards to the police station with the following words: “Guo Baofeng, you mother wants you to go home to eat.” A week later, the detained blogger was released.
This is just one of many cases of creative appropriation of an apparently innocuous internet space for political expression. My point is not that gaming communities are adequate for political participation. Far from it. Rather, I am making a point about the availability of the information infrastructure (which also happens to be a social network). Chinese netizens, however earnestly they might wish to communicate, would be quite hapless without online communities, blogs, and bulletin boards. The infrastructure has to be there in the first place for them to do anything. That they have become a vociferous force for social change, and one which, more and more, must be reckoned with by the government, is due in no small measure to their ability to skillfully negotiate a Chinese network infrastructure that is built not for political participation, but for commerce.
Google’s exit from China may have little effect on the negative freedom of Chinese netizens if it does not change the ways the state regulates the internet. However, it may amount to a major loss to netizens engaged in pursuits of positive freedom. There is an elective affinity between Google’s creativity and the creativity of Chinese netizens. Chinese netizens will still be creative, but they will miss Google tools should these tools become unavailable. The Chinese search engine market will become less competitive and thus even more susceptible to political control. All this may result in the shrinking, not expanding, of people’s horizons and engagement with the world.
It is hard to imagine Google continuing to operate in China by censoring its search engine as if nothing had happened. But neither can I imagine Google retreating into its inner citadel. I find it unlikely, as Isaiah Berlin might put it, that when faced with two methods of freeing itself from the pain of a wounded leg, one of difficulty and uncertainty of finding a cure, the other of cutting it off, Google will opt for the second. Perhaps we will soon see another moment of Google creativity.
Google’s future in China also depends on the responses of the Chinese government. As the Green Dam case shows, Chinese state authorities have demonstrated some degree of flexibility in responding to citizen demands and inputs. The Chinese government itself has initiatives to strengthen the channels of state-citizen communication, such as by promulgating information disclosure acts and institutionalizing public hearings on the environmental impact of construction projects. Google’s refusal to censor its Chinese search engine is consistent with Chinese citizens’ broad demands for openness, transparency, and speech freedom, and should be taken just as seriously as those popular demands.