Google is threatening to pull out of the Chinese market unless alleged cyber attacks on Gmail users are properly investigated, and state-imposed censorship is lifted from the search engine. This recent confrontation between Google and the Chinese government demonstrates, once again, the human rights violations of the communist regime on its citizens.
In an unprecedented case of activism against China, the multinational corporation has shown promise that it could effect change on the authoritarian state. Where state leaders, the Dalai Llama and martyred university students have failed, perhaps sheer capitalistic concerns can persuade communist leaders to soften their policies on freedom (or prohibition) of speech and privacy.
But history suggests this face-off won’t yield any real results beyond simply highlighting an old issue. China has rarely relented in the face of international pressure.
The world assumed that an event as large and momentous as hosting the Olympics would force China to soften its policies on human rights – or make progress on its lack thereof. Talks initiated by the Chinese government with the Dalai Llama in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Games were a farce, designed to appease foreign leaders and international opinion. They did nothing at all. The Dalai Llama spoke of how futile those discussions were during his Montreal visit last fall.
In fact, the civil unrest that took place in China over the summer is what led to the indefinite ban on Facebook.
The rhetoric of diplomats and politicians sounds more and more like lip-service these days. It is almost always cancelled out by concerns expressing the importance of trade and economic cooperation. Today, phenomenal economic growth gives China a key role in the current global recession; their ability to rebuff further scrutiny or pressure against human rights abuses at home is stronger than ever.
If Google is serious about effecting any change, it must treat itself as an enabler for Chinese citizens not as an actor within the issue.
To the Chinese government, the most frightening prospect is popular dissent among millions. It is nothing short of a miracle that Beijing has been able to maintain control over the country throughout 60 years of extreme economic change, not to mention striking regional differences, and a population of 1.7 billion people.
If it chooses to stay, Google could significantly benefit the citizens of China in the long term. It has gained a foothold in a large population that, for the most part, has been extremely isolated from foreign influence. The rest of the world may think it is a travesty that a search engine must censor itself to be allowed access inside this country. But for the ordinary Chinese people, Google’s presence is still a huge blessing because it offers an incredible amount of diverse content to a populace eager to learn about the rest of the world. It makes knowledge and ideas beyond the grasp of state-controlled education and censored media, including quality media sources worldwide, blogs and open-sourced information available to the people. Winston Smith, George Orwell’s character in 1984, rings true for the individual Chinese – fighting against state-induced ignorance.
On the other hand, if it were to withdraw from China, Google would be leaving behind a vacuum on the Internet on which the Chinese government can further encroach itself. Baidu, the search engine which currently dominates the market in China, is more susceptible to state control because it doesn’t have the same recognition or prominence as Google on the international stage. It’s hard to imagine that a dispute between Baidu and the Chinese government would generate the same amount of attention &- if Baidu dares to confront the government at all. Think of Baidu as Google’s helpless Chinese cousin.
Google may seem like the champion of the freedom of speech in its confrontation with the Chinese government, but it may simply be a clever and opportunistic public relations move. Bloggers and the Chinese government believe Google’s wish to leave China may have more to do with its inability to out-compete Baidu, which holds just over 60 per cent of the market share (Google holds just over 30 per cent).
It is also unlikely that a corporation as savvy as Google doesn’t have a vested interest in the move, unless it has taken an surprising turn to be altruistic. In the latter case, Google would do more good by continuing to serve Chinese Internet users. The Chinese are appreciative what Google has done – and what it could do for their nation. Just think: in what other country would you find people placing flowers next to a corporate logo?