Global Connections Edition
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Labor Article

“Google vs. China: The Battle over Cyberspace”

By Xin Zhang, Assistant Editor

The recent Google vs. Chinese government story has become the center of focus in both American and Chinese media and has caused heated debate among audiences all around the world who are interested in internet freedom and corporate-government relations.

It all started on January 12 this year when Google published an open letter on their corporate blog in which Google claimed that the company as well as more 20 other firms had been subject to "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack."[1] Although Google didn’t point the finger directly at the Chinese government, the wording of the letter indicates clearly that Google believed that these cyber attacks are linked to the Chinese government. Google also announced in this post that it was no longer willing to work under the current legal framework in China and tp keep the tacit agreement to conduct internet censoring through Google’s search engine following the Chinese government’s requirement.

If further negotiation with the Chinese government did not lead to significant change in Chinese government’s policy in this field, then Google would have to pull out of the Chinese market. On the same day, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton issued a brief statement condemning the attacks and requesting a response from China. On January 13, 2010, the news agency AHN reported that the U.S. Congress plans to investigate Google's allegations that the Chinese government used the company's service to spy on human rights activists.

In Beijing, right after the release of the Google open letter, visitors left flowers outside of Google’s main office. The same thing happened a bit later in Google’s other offices in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The burgeoning discussion in Chinese media and among Chinese netizens soon turned out to be highly divisive.

One major line of argument follows the message around what Google wants to convey. According to this interpretation, Google. as a company with high ethical standards. finally gave up on its tacit deal with the “evil” Chinese government, following its own famous corporate motto “ do no evil”. Thus, Google’s announcement was interpreted as a heroic action at the risk of losing the huge market in China in defiance of an evil state. By releasing such an “ultimatum”, Google set itself up as a role model for other businesses to follow. In a similar vein, Chinese netizens who endorse such an interpretation also hailed Hilary Clinton’s speech on internet freedom delivered on January 21 as an epoch-making speech, which represents the start of full-scale campaign to fight against “information curtain” around the world. Some even ranked this speech higher than all speeches by President Obama during his first year in office.

Some Chinese media outlets and netizens, while acknowledging the positive message Google sent out and criticizing the Chinese government’s increasing tightening hand on internet and information flow, suspect that Google’s move was at least driven by commercial considerations. Since Google now takes about 30% of the internet search market in Chinese, falling behind the local competitor Baidu, Google is not doing as well as corporate management had expected when they decided to enter the Chinese market. In order to give a reasonable account of their relative slow development in the Chinese market especially to the investors, Google underscored the political constraint they have had to face in China and presented the ultimatum at least partly as excuse for the underperformance of their business in China.

Some commentators also picked up on Google’s open letter and questioned the logic, ambiguity, and train of thought. For example:

  • Why did Google have to use internet hacking to justify its retreat from China: doesn’t such hacking exist almost everywhere?
  • If Google has clear proof that Chinese government is behind those hackings, why didn’t it make this clear in this ultimatum-type of announcement?
  • What is the logical connection between hacking and censorship, the two main issues raised in the announcement?
  • If Google really held the “do-no-evil” principle consistently, why didn’t Google stick with it in the first place when it entered China?
  • Some Chinese sources even bring up stories that Google actually released information of political dissidents to the Indian government, which resulted in the arrest of the latter.[2]

    Last but not least, some commentators link Clinton’s speech and her meeting with chief executives of big IT companies before the Google story came out, to Google’s decision. For them, the US government began to utilize free access to information as the new frontline to confront states like China and Cuba and Google has just become the important corporate partner in this attempt. Acting as am accomplice with the US government in the new campaign of a cyber-war for information, Google is actually helping the US government intervene with countries in the name of tearing down the “information curtain”. This story, to these netizens, is an indication of US new global strategy in the information era and Google is doomed to fail if it dares to challenge the economic sovereignty of China.

    The Chinese government so far has not responded directly to the Google story especially its claim on internet hacking and censorship possibly originated from the Chinese government. What certain government officials commented in an indirect way is that all foreign companies "Foreign companies in China should respect the laws and regulations, respect the public interest of Chinese people and China's culture and customs and shoulder due social responsibilities. There is no exception for Google." The government has reaffirmed its need to "guide" the Chinese people through information access, and stressed again that all companies need to obey local laws. Government related media sources like People’s Daily raised the question "Behind what America calls free speech is naked political scheming. How did the unrest after the Iranian elections come about?”, criticizing US’s utilizing similar tactics to intervene cyber-freedom in Cuba and Iran.

    This story is still an on-going drama. No matter what kind of official response the Chinese government releases or how the story plays out, for sure Google vs. China represents a new page in the battle over control of information in cyberspace.