Analysis: US-China-Google Row

Jennifer Leong TCS Reporter 29 January 2010

Internet search giant Google has threatened to quit the Chinese market in a daring move in response to ‘cyber attacks’ on its coding and e-mail system. The company announced on 12 January that there had been “highly sophisticated attacks” on Gmail accounts of not only Chinese human-rights activists, but also those based in Europe and the United States. Google said it would hold talks with Chinese authorities to look at operating an unfiltered search engine within the law in the country.

Both Google and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton implied in recent comments that Chinese state agents, rather than individual hackers, were behind these cyber attacks. In a speech in Washington, Clinton said that nations that restrict access to information “risks walling themselves off from the progress of the next century”. She added that ‘”countries or individuals that engage in cyber-attacks should face consequences and international condemnation”.

Chinese media focused on the issue of Western double-standards in its angry response to Clinton’s criticism. State-sponsored English newspaper, the Global Times, called the pressure ‘information imperialism’— a disguised attempt to impose US values on other cultures in the name of democracy. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu stressed that any company could operate in China as long as it respects the country’s laws and traditions.

It is highly disputed whether Google is prepared to walk away from the country, which boasts the highest number of Internet users in the world. and has a lucrative search engine market worth an estimated $1bn (£614m) last year.

Some believe that Google could better fight for free access to information by staying in China, even if that means complying with censorship restrictions. Others criticize Google’s move to stand up for freedom of information as hypocritical, since Google had willingly censored certain topics deemed ‘politically subversive’ by the Chinese authorities when it first launched google.cn in 2006.

The taboo topics include the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and Tibetan independence. The filtering system is still in place despite Google’s call for free information flow. Some have not failed to catch the irony in Google’s company motto: ‘Don’t be Evil’.

Last month, the government sentenced human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, the founder of ‘Charter 08′ (an online petition for constitutional reform in China), to an unusually harsh jail sentence of 11 years.

Other moves to interfere in the freedom of speech and information include a recent directive requiring the installation of a filtering software product, Green Dam, in all newly purchased computers with the publicly stated intent of protecting children from harmful Internet content.

In fact, the filter goes beyond that to censor sensitive political and religious material on the net. The so- called ‘Great Firewall of China’ has long been touchy issue.

While many regard it as unfortunate that Beijing still regards control over the Internet as a guarantee of state security and the Party’s political power, it is easy to forget that the problem has its roots in the Chinese authorities’ general mistrust of the West. Demonizing China and making unilateral moralistic pronouncements before negotiations have taken place certainly would be unlikely to help matters.

The ongoing Google row has threatened to rattle ties between Washington and Beijing already frayed over a number of issues, from the Copenhagen climate-change debacle to the value of the Chinese yuan.

Hilary Clinton added on a more hopeful note that America and China should address their different views “candidly and consistently”. Only when the US begins to be more sensitive about China’s insecurities will China be more ready to engage with such sensitive issues more openly; which would be beneficial for human rights activists and for foreign stakeholders in China.

The Google episode is symptomatic to US-China tensions and how the two powers perceive themselves in relation to the other. There is hope that talks will succeed in overcoming this tension. In the end, the two need not be the best of friends, but strategic partners who trust each other to create win-win situations.

Jennifer Leong TCS Reporter