Thursday, January 26, 2006

Google and the Great Veil Of China

What should we make of Google’s decision to enforce self-censorship in order to get a foothold in the lucrative and booming Chinese market? They had resisted up until now, while competitors signed up to the conditions laid down by the Chinese government over what its citizens can and cannot access on the internet. Contraband search terms, as defined by the faceless totalitarian government in Beijing, include such shocking words and concepts as: ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘Taiwan independence’, ‘Free Tibet’ and, of course, the words ‘Tiananmen’, ‘Square’, ‘brutal’ and ‘massacre’ used in conjunction.

Meanwhile, Google (whose slogan is “Don’t be evil”) argue that withdrawing completely would be worse. Although they don’t actually explain how, so I guess we’ll just have to take their word for it.

It’s a shame, because as giant corporations hell-bent on world domination go, Google are one of my favourites. Their search services whip everybody else into irrelevance, and they provide lots of pretty cool (and free) software such as Google Earth and Picasa. Gmail is far better than any of the other free web mail services too. Even Blogger, of course, is Google owned, so these very words are hosted on their servers (although I expect this site would be blocked via Google.cn due to containing naughty words like ‘liberalism’ and ‘freedom’).

Ultimately though the censorship will prove to be futile. Nothing can stop the flow of information - it always finds a way through - and the Chinese government attempting to hold back the full force of the internet is rather like the legend of King Knut standing on the beach, demanding that the waves turn back. Totalitarianism always fails and China, as it increasingly opens itself up to free market capitalism, will be no exception. Free markets and democracy are a double act – neither lasts for long without the other - and China’s attempt to develop international open markets while enforcing domestic social oppression will one day buckle under the weight of its own contradictions.

Which is ironic, because that’s exactly what Karl Marx said would happen to capitalism.

3 comments:

Jim said...

"Totalitarianism always fails and China, as it increasingly opens itself up to free market capitalism, will be no exception."

At the moment, China is proving that free markets and a totalitarian poltical system can exist side by side. The real threat to its stability comes from the growing inequality between the cities and the countryside. The argument that the Internet always helps spread democracy and transparency is a fallacy, as George Monbiot has skilfully pointed out:
http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2005/09/13/the-net-censors/

FamilyValues said...

I admire your optimism Citizen, but I'm afraid the march of freedom and democracy into China is by no means inevitable.

We need to be much more agressive and much more principled in the defence of freedom in China, rather than just dropping to our knees and sucking the Communist Party's cock so we can get slice of their markets. Its a disgrace that the only people who get really exercised about this are right-wing American congressman - this should be a defining issue for the liberal left too.

Check out Timothy Garton-Ash for a more sobering take in the future: http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1678136,00.htm

Citizen Sane said...

Thanks both. Interesting reads.

Jim - I didn't say that the internet specifically will precipitate democracy in China (although it will play a huge part). It will be one of many tools constantly chipping away at the regime, encouraging the movement of ideas. China cannot become the economic powerhouse it aspires to be without allowing more freedoms (esp. freedom of movement) and it seems inevitable to me that its one party totalitarian state will, one day, dissolve. I’m not saying this will happen soon – 20 years would probably be on optimistic guess – but it will happen. (I hope.)

Familyvalues – I agree that the kowtowing to China’s government by the likes of Murdoch, Yahoo!, Microsoft and, now, Google, is nauseating and does them no credit whatsoever. But they’re businesses, so will always pursue whatever adds to their bottom line. A shame, but true. But, I’m still optimistic that they will (albeit it unwittingly) be agents of change in the long run. China cannot censor everyone forever, especially as larger portions of its population get wealthier and more mobile. One day, it will fall.