Guest Post: Michael Goldfarb on Google in China

30Mar10

Last week I woke up one morning and discovered to my chagrin that my strictly regimented morning routine had come undone. I rolled out of bed, turned on my computer, opened my search engine…and google.com.cn had been replaced by google.com.hk. It was sort of like the information technology equivalent of Robert Irsay packing up the Baltimore Colts in the middle of the night and skipping town. The next morning no one was quite sure what had happened but had a lingering feeling of betrayal and violation, a feeling that things would never be the same. And although the Ravens and Hong Kong Google have each served as a suitable stopgap, they can’t truly replace the originals.

For most Chinese net users, Google has always been of questionable significance. Students and employees value the Google images tab (when it is functioning) and when an English language query is in order, Google is the primary tool employed. Nonetheless, Baidu clearly dominates the search engine marketplace, while the banning of Google mainstay Youtube further inhibits the cult-like obsession Americans have formed with the California company. But now, in the wake of the recent CCP-Google Rumble in the Information Superhighway Jungle (Thrilla in Beijing?), Google has entrenched itself as far more than a corporation seeking profits in the world’s most populous country.

Based on the articles I have read and people I have spoken to, opinion in the United States appears divided concerning whether Google is in the wrong in its decision to discontinue the practice of censoring Chinese search engine results. One camp (which, for full disclosure, I should note I belong to) contends that the company should be lauded for transcending the omnipresent capitalist drive for $ and, instead, appreciating that with the size, scope and significance of today’s major incorporated entities (information technology industry members perhaps more than any other because of the unique societal role of companies trading in communication), CEOs are also foreign policy creators. In other words, Google, like the United States or Great Britain, can directly affect, positively or negatively, the status of repressive regimes, the ability of dictators to control their people. Washington criticizes China for natural resource deals that prop up regimes in Khartoum and Nay Pyi Daw but corporations that acquiesce to limitations on free speech are no less guilty of committing vicarious repression.

The other camp, notably including Bill Gates, argues that if Google, or any other company, wants to do business in a foreign land, it must abide by the unique rules and regulations of that sovereign state (sounds strikingly similar to the Chinese “non-interference” principle articulated endlessly since the Bandung Conference of 1955). A universally applicable, credible rule of law is the foundation of a country, by definition, and allowing individuals or agglomerations of individuals to deviate from statute because of “moral obligation” would lead to anarchic chaos.

The heated discussion in America notwithstanding, the Google issue draws no debate in China. Not a single student or Chinese acquaintance I have spoken to has recognized the legitimacy of, let alone agreed with, the company’s position.

Recognizing that I am toeing the fine line between cultural critique and racial stereotyping, let me preface my discussion hereafter by noting that I have nothing but the greatest affinity for Chinese people, enough so to have moved here. And even when I use catch-all phrases like “Chinese people,” by no means do I wish to imply uniformity amongst the populace of which I speak.

That being said, the Chinese students I teach here often seem, far more so than my American peers in Cambridge, to avoid independent thought. They are skilled at what my professors would term “regurgitation” of information, whereby they restate what others have said about a topic, with no original insights proffered. Such a skill can prove especially useful in math or science, for example, where memorization and repetition are central tenets. But in a classroom of 40 students who need to write theses to graduate, a single novel topic idea has thus far failed to materialize. Students never ask questions in class for clarification (for the sake of argumentation? Oh the horror!) because to question authority, for any purpose, is foreign. Class debates are little more than group wavering, until the professor announces their position on the topic at hand, when collective agreement, or acquiescing, takes hold.

For those who have less first-hand experience with Chinese cultural values the question “Do Chinese citizens accept societal control out of fear?” might seem reasonable when, in reality, the answer is that they accept control from above for lack of an alternative.

Sometimes this particular thought process can be massively frustrating; if I hear one more comment about how the “Tibetan and Uighur terrorists” must be suppressed because “the people in charge have told us they cause problems and physical damage,” I may snap (even playing MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech drew harsh criticism of American segregation with no recognition of the parallels with contemporary China where racial hatred is rampant). In the case of Google it seems the same mental track is prevailing. The government says that there is information that is best censored to ensure societal harmony and morality, and Google’s interference is unjust prodding in an attempt to export American cultural norms and values (and degradation). The Chinese citizens/subjects, deferring to authority, agree.

This, then, poses a more difficult question for me to wrap my head around. Does Google have the responsibility to play omniscient overseer and attempt to protect the supposedly inaccessible human rights of Chinese citizens when those very same citizens are do not desire outside assistance/interference?

The issue is far from abating, with a major Chinese mobile carrier announcing it will no longer offer Google search on Android based phones (ironic). Meanwhile, two American companies have chosen to leave China over another contentious internet issue: requiring website owners to disclose their identity and register with public officials. The locus of Sino-American conflict, for the moment at least, has shifted from the Taiwan Strait to the World Wide Web.

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