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    Greater China
     Jul 1, 2009


China creates an Internet albatross
By Sreeram Chaulia

What happens when the world's fastest-growing Internet market is barricaded from the world's largest search engine on the pretext that the latter is promoting "lewdness?" The logic of economic competition and business expansion dictates that the service provider succumbs to pressure and restricts its content to retain access to that market. Google Inc's run-ins with China in recent weeks are testimony to the leverage that states ruling large markets enjoy over even the mightiest of multinational corporations.

China's communist authorities have long been paranoid gatekeepers to the worldwide web on behalf of their 298 million-strong and growing netizenry. They are particularly wary of Google because of its extraordinarily powerful algorithms, which give searchers a window seat to forbidden terrain such as human rights, democracy, and the Free Tibet and Falungong movements.

The volume and relevance of search hits offered at the click of a mouse by Google is a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party's desire to filter knowledge. Given the adverse global reaction to its crude censorship policies, Beijing has resorted to the ruse of curbing pornography and accused Google of being a purveyor of vice. Drives against obscenity and political expression on the Internet historically go hand-in-hand in China. This was true for the sustained Internet crackdown that lasted up to February 2006 as well as for the current operations which culminated in the blocking of Google's Chinese-language subsidiary, its e-mail service, and other add-ons.

The government has broadcast show-trial type allegations on Chinese state-owned television (CCTV) against Google, revealing the charade behind obvious political gags being imposed on society in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of communist China, to be celebrated on October 1.  

A demonstration was held in front of camera showing that Google is an instant ticket to incestuous debauchery. But it was achieved through tampering with the search engine's software and a denunciation by a "student" who was actually an insider from CCTV's studios. The episode was so ridiculously stage-managed that angry netizens reacted with irony, asking: "Is employing a real university student so hard?"

But the coercion did the trick. Google has made its peace with Beijing by "agreeing to take down contentious content from its search engine", and it is now back online. Google's chief executive officer Eric Schmidt has not revealed whether the withdrawn content included more political search terms and categories, but one cannot rule out such a deal. After all, when Google China was launched a few years ago, it agreed to comply with the party's "Golden Shield Project", which blocks sensitive keywords "in accordance with local laws". Whether the present agreement involves adding to Google China's blacklist of political terms is unclear but not unlikely.

Although China is a rapidly growing market for search engine services, its contribution to Google's online advertising revenues is not spectacular. According to one estimate, Google's annual revenue from China is only US$200-$300 million, ie just 1.4% of its $21.8 billion global earnings. But China is a sprinting growth country where Google faces a formidable local competitor, Baidu.com, and the former cannot afford to be in the state's bad books. Microsoft and Yahoo think likewise and are collaborating with the party's attempts to sanitize cyberspace.

China's latest targeting of Google could also be a salvo in a trade war with the US, which has just lodged a complaint at the World Trade Organization against Chinese export restraints on raw materials. Astute Chinese strategists would certainly have noted Schmidt's personal closeness to US President Barack Obama. The think-tank, the New America Foundation, which has the Obama administration's ear, is headed by Schmidt and is taking the lead as the government-favored public policy research institute in the US. A Chinese stab at Google could, ipso facto, prickle the corridors of power in Washington.

China's demonizing of Google may also be connected to the Iran imbroglio, where web-based technology triggered an open revolt by citizens against what they saw as a fraudulent election. By periodically reining in Google and its popular video channel, YouTube, China could be planning to preempt potential Iran-style mass upheavals. Beijing's Green Dam pre-installation censorship software is also being forced on unwilling foreign manufacturers of personal computers as a cog in the Chinese state's Internet defensive mechanism, which has been dubbed the "Great Firewall".

But free-spirited Chinese netizens are fighting back against the state's manipulation of the web. As the deadline for its pre-installation approached, the designers of Green Dam received several death threats from frustrated Chinese browsers. Chinese Internet users are also mass downloading Tor, the "anonymizing" network that helps surfers bypass censorship systems and cover their tracks. Thanks to liberating options like Tor, news blackouts and jailing of Internet activists are today less successful in China's densely policed Internet environment.

To progress from being the "factory of the world" towards a hi-tech economy, China will need a more skilled and Internet-savvy population. But the more proficient Chinese people get with technology, the likelier it is that the Web will spring unwanted surprises for the Communist Party. Marxists are the first to acknowledge that technological leaps can transform political structures.

Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, India.

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