Google and China: in the Long Term

This is neither a blog post about Google’s motives for changing its mind about China, nor is it a post about the seeming triumph of Baidu in the world’s fastest growing economy, nor is it a post about the Chinese government’s steadfast denials of hacking or its silly propaganda offensive against Google and the US. Those posts have been written already, both by people with greater interest and greater insight than myself. Instead, I would like to explore the long-term ramifications of the Google-China affair, as well as the implications of the U.S. policy response outlined by Secretary of State Clinton.

First, while domestic IT companies will continue to thrive, both the perception and the reality of Google’s situation will have a negative effect on international IT investment in China. When “inside job” memes start spreading alongside a very public insinuation that the Chinese government aided and abetted IP theft on a vast scale, there can be no question that the end result will be a poisoned business environment for IT companies in China. While companies everywhere will always be open to cyberattack, the added danger of physical access to corporate IT infrastructure will lead many companies to rethink placing datacenters and software labs in China. More disturbing is the possibility that IT companies may come to question the loyalty of Chinese staff in an IT world replay of the Wen Ho Lee affair. (To Chinese friends:  you might want to delete that Communist Party membership you wrote about on your resume.)  Factors such as these may lead IT firms to turn to India instead of China as a hub for their low-cost Asian operations, or to Taiwan or South Korea for more expensive, bandwidth-critical investments.

A second development is that Google will harm its reputation by sending mixed messages about future plans in China. The company’s hard stance has won considerable praise from foreign observers used to watching companies muddy the ethical waters when doing business in China. (When Google said no to Zhongnanhai, one could almost hear the gasps of delight in Washington and Silicon Valley!) Thus it comes as no surprise that when Google starts whittling away at the strength of its initial statements, it leaves many of the company’s fans with a sour taste in their mouths. Google’s investors will be left scratching their heads at how Page and Brin — Google’s tech geniuses — could spearhead such a bold position only to have it talked down by Schmidt — Google’s biz guy — in the weeks that followed.  Even worse, for smaller IT companies Google’s actions beg the question, if, in the end, even Google cannot stand up to China, how on earth can we?

Moving on to the Secretary of State’s speech, the main problem with the U.S. approach is that it wants to sidestep the economic issues involved in Chinese censorship and nationalist hacking and wrap everything up in the guise of human rights. Human rights are important, no doubt, but they were not a sufficient cause for Google’s abrupt policy change regarding China nor are human rights behind, say, IP piracy intrusions at Adobe and other IT firms. Moreover, putting human rights front and center is the old familiar anti-Chinese government narrative, a narrative which, while it may please the ears of Western audiences, will ring false to many Chinese citizens who, as Baidu’s Sun Yunfeng notes, care less about political issues and more about “the most routine information in economy, culture and technology fields.”

While the speech was more a statement of principles than a policy outline, there were a few moments in which Clinton’s statements played into Beijing’s hands. Consider the passage where Secretary Clinton announces U.S. government assistance to develop “circumvention tools”:

We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely. The United States has been assisting in these efforts for some time, with a focus on implementing these programs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Both the American people and nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.

We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, to build global support for President Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons, to encourage sustainable economic development that lifts the people at the bottom up.

As an unstated policy of the United States, this approach would be precisely right — the U.S. should be working to strengthen democratic movements in authoritarian countries. On the other hand, as a stated policy, the United States is giving ammunition to regimes in Beijing (and elsewhere) to label dissidents as pawns of Washington, to stigmatize them as the agents of foreign powers. Although Westerners may find charges such as “information imperialism” laughable, we should not ignore Beijing’s rate of success at making common Chinese distrust any critics deemed to have too many friends in foreign capitals. Furthermore, Washington runs the danger of not only stigmatizing individuals but also technology. If proxy services are explicitly linked to U.S. policies, the Chinese government is all but certain to double their efforts to thwart all software designed to leap over the Great Firewall, and because Beijing exports information control technology to other authoritarian regimes, there’s a danger of the closed Internets everywhere being quickly “immunized” against the tools designed to crack them open.

Lastly, we should always remember that although China itself is not democratic, there are democratic forces at work in the country, and those forces have been increasingly successful at forcing changes in government policy.  Netizens, dissidents, and the Chinese consumer each wield their own forms of democratic power, but Chinese democracy is prickly and resents paternalistic Western interference.  Consequently, Chinese can be vociferous in their criticism of the government so long as that criticism is seen to be genuinely “Chinese” in origin. The best thing that Google can do in the long term is to let the Chinese people, not Washington, say “Don’t Be Evil” to Zhongnanhai.  Despite Baidu’s homefield advantage, Chinese companies are service leaders, not technology leaders.  Google is the number one technology leader, and Chinese consumers can appreciate that fact.  At the same time, the best thing that the West can do in the years ahead is to treat information control technologies like we would nuclear weapons: fight to control the spread of the technology; work to reduce its application, especially in democracies; but ultimately hope that governments can mature to the point where such technologies are seen as archaic and unnecessary.

Great Firewall, Bad Legislation

With the election cycle upon us, it’s not surprising that American politicians have taken to criticizing China more directly on issues such as Burma, the trade deficit, environmental protection, and Internet censorship. The last issue has drawn extra attention of late, perhaps because human rights advocates in the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and populist anti-corporate voices have joined together to lash out at US companies for helping China to build the Great Firewall, China’s Internet censorship regime.

This week, Rebecca MacKinnon chronicled the latest legislation unveiled in the House, the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 (henceforth GOFA). The GOFA would penalize American firms who “play along” with the Chinese censorship regime and require such things as keeping user information databases outside of China. MacKinnon wryly notes that a similar effort got nowhere last year, but I believe China is more high-profile than ever in voters’ minds, so the bill might actually see some floor action.

All the pity, then, that the focus of Reps. Smith, Lantos, and others in the Human Rights Caucus is misdirected. Even if the GOFA becomes law, the chances of it putting a dent in the Great Firewall are slim to none. It would, in theory, cripple the Chinese market operations of Cisco, Microsoft, Google and similar corporations, but it wouldn’t mean the end of the Great Firewall. In a way that mirrors the contributions of foreign manufacturers to Chinese industry, the expertise of many Western tech companies have certainly accelerated the development of Internet censorship in China, yet just as Chinese firms like Haier have emerged from joint venture arrangements to stand on their own, Chinese Internet censorship would continue to thrive without, say, the latest Cisco routers.

This doesn’t mean, however, that US firms like Yahoo should be free from criticism for their cooperation with Chinese authorities. On the contrary, they deserve to be publicly excoriated for every little kowtow they make towards the Powers That Be. (This goes double for companies that talk big about defending free expression in the US but do just the opposite in China. I’m looking at you, Google.) But we should nonetheless realize that punishing American firms for doing business in China will do little to enhance the freedom and opportunities of Chinese Internet users.

The alternative tactic of China critics is to make normative claims against China itself, to switch from saying “Cisco is evil for helping to build the Great Firewall” to saying “China is evil for having the Great Firewall in the first place.” Yet anyone who has studied modern China at all will immediately recognize that such criticisms fall on deaf ears, both in the halls of government in Beijing and, more unfortunately, on the streets and in the Internet cafes. Not only does the government bristle at what it deems “outside interference” in Chinese society, even the most cosmopolitan-minded Chinese may turn nationalistic when foreigners are seen lecturing to the Chinese government.

All of the above begs the question, what could the West in general and the US in particular do to weaken the Great Firewall? The answer may lie in seeing Chinese Internet censorship not as a moral issue but as an economic one. Let’s consider the following proposal.

In general, Westerners react to Chinese Internet censorship the way they react to book burnings: the government in question is deplored and the right to write and publish defended. Yet this analogy is weak on a number of fronts, not the least of which is that websites and especially web services represent a bundle of economic interests that are different than books. Moreover, while China is party to no conventions which call for political liberalization, the country has joined a number of agreements and organizations that call for economic liberalization, chief among them the World Trade Organization. And when considering the adverse economic effects from arbitrarily shutting out Western portals, search engines, and BSPs from the Chinese market, can we not call the Great Firewall a trade barrier?

I admit that I’m not the first to see Chinese Internet censorship as a form of crypto-protectionism. Much like a regime of infant industry protection, when Western web services are blocked, it forces Chinese users to turn to the Chinese competition. For instance, China’s recent blocking of Feedburner led the Chinese blogosphere to start using the Chinese provider Feedsky. When the blocks are lifted, the Chinese users are unlikely to return to the Western services unless, like Microsoft’s Hotmail, which has been blocked off and on, the service is significantly embedded into another service Chinese users depend on, such as Windows Live Messenger.

We can predict several of the ways the Chinese government would respond to such a challenge. First, they’d claim the right to protect Chinese citizens from indecent online content, and point to European censorship of Nazi ideology as a similarly justifiable form of censorship. Yet such a claim would invite intense scrutiny of what the Chinese government deems indecent. For example, is it reasonable to claim that Flickr or Youtube must be blocked to protect children from pornography when Chinese boys can use government-approved Baidu to look at Taiwanese actress Shu Qi’s famous parts? (Link NSFW, obviously.) Admittedly, hypocritical application of the law might at first seem a weak foundation for a WTO challenge, that didn’t stop Antigua from winning a WTO case against the US on similar grounds.

Secondly, they’d claim that any web provider can play ball in China if they follow the Chinese rules, so there’s no discrimination against foreign companies who cooperate. That said, while large companies have been asked to agree to censorship to continue doing business online in China, for the most part, China rarely publicizes its censorship requests or confirms the extent of its censorship. As some have noted, the entire enterprise of Chinese Internet censorship is murky and subjectively applied. Indeed, many services, such as Wikipedia, are just blocked outright, with no warning, while some sites continue to be accessible despite having materials long declared verboten in China. This lack of openness and evenhandedness means that the Great Firewall, in its current form, would be incompatible with the nondiscrimination and transparency requirements of the WTO.

In the end, moving the Chinese censorship debate from the halls of Congress to the fora of the World Trade Organization would not guarantee an end to the Great Firewall, but it would force the Chinese government to come clean about the extent and nature of its online censorship, which is in itself a victory. Furthermore, it provides an economic disincentive to other WTO member-countries currently thinking of building their own Great Firewalls. While an economy of China’s size could easily endure theoretical WTO sanctions, smaller developing countries would be hit hard and forced to weigh the costs and benefits of censorship. Finally, if successful, it would encourage Western political leaders to think creatively about how to encourage Chinese liberalization rather than to resort to the old moralizing discourse.

Antecedents to the Blog

True confession time: expat.wordpress.com was registered some 2 years ago just for the sake of acquiring a WordPress API key. I had meant to eventually make use of the domain as a group-based travel and life guide for people in China with a special focus on Tianjin and Beijing. Unfortunately, this plan was nipped in the bud by the Chinese powers-that-be, who deemed the new free blogs on wordpress.com yet another threat to harmonization. After wordpress.com was blocked by the Great Firewall, I decided to shelve the blog. After all, what’s the use of a website for people who live in China that cannot be read by people living in China?

In the meantime, I had other blogs hosted on LiveJournal, MSN Spaces, and my own (now defunct) domain, matthewstinson.net, so I was still pretty busy blogging on my own. Like others, I had first got into the blogging scene via Blogspot in 2001, and I did more than my fair share of poliblogging, though over time my political commentaries slowed to a trickle. I attribute this partly towards a busier lifestyle, partly towards the enervating effect George W. Bush has had on the conservative movement, and partly towards the decline in civility among bloggers.

About my life I can only say that China, as wonderful and interesting as it is, is just not very blogger-friendly. Setting aside the obvious elephant in the living room, the aforementioned Great Firewall, most of China lacks the kind of communication infrastructure to make blogging quick and easy. For instance, when out of the house, I would like to blog from WiFi hotspots or by using my phone as a modem, but in a second-tier city such as Tianjin, WiFi hotspots are few and phone data services are too slow. (Beijing is slightly better thanks to the liberal proliferation of Western businesses in the city.) At home, connectivity is also an issue, with Chinese ADSL choking like an old-school 56K modem during peak hours. Still, the Great Firewall has to be factored in, since it made managing matthewstinson.net a bit of a headache after my Blog Service Provider was blocked. Because I can’t always use a proxy, it also more or less killed my LiveJournal writing and stopped me from making a Blogspot blog after I ended matthewstinson.net.

As to the political situation stateside, I’ll start by noting that I’ve never really been a fan of George W. Bush. I was, for a time, a fan of the people he chose to surround himself with, and had I been voting for president based merely on advisors, there’s no question that I would’ve voted for Bush over Gore in 2000. Yet when it came to Bush himself, there has always been a hollow blandness to the man, an unserious folksy demeanor that suggested Joe Average instead of Leader of the Free World. He was never meant to be an innovator or activist the way Gore has always been cast, and Bush’s bipartisan triumphs in conservative Texas were always shaky ground upon which to build a new national politics. As a serious conservative, I gained the sense in the first election that the choice between Bush and Gore was a choice between the right ideas implemented poorly and the wrong ideas implemented well. In the end, I chose to abstain from voting, and I don’t regret that decision.

Little did I know that Bush would prove me wrong. Not only have Bush’s ideas been implemented poorly, many of them — the Medicare drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, new protectionism, veto-free budgeting, the Katrina response, and state-building in Iraq, to name a few — have been the wrong ideas to begin with. At the same time, if I could not cheerlead for the president, I could hardly cheerlead for the Congress. Gone was the vision and vigor that Republicans brought to the Hill in 1994. Instead, the potential for real change was sapped by the lobbyists, by the activists, and by the inherently corrupting nature of incumbency, all of which saw reformers stepped on by senior members and the grassroots disillusioned by an orgy of big government as disgusting as any scene in a Hogarth painting.

My friends on the left attribute these failures to inherent flaws in the ideology of conservatives and libertarians. I would counter that what we’ve witnessed is not ideological decay but the structural weakness and rudderless leadership of the Republican party, which mirrors the situation Democrats found themselves in during the late 1970s. In short, my fellow Republicans: these are our Jimmy Carter years.

That is not to say that Democrats have suddenly become the party of ideas, though they are, without a doubt, the party of anger. Indeed, in Democratic displays of outrage and Republican flag-waving, both parties have eschewed intellectualism post-9/11 for the sake of political theater, and online in particular the parties play to the reptilian instincts of their base. While those new to the blogging game might not believe it, things weren’t always so smashmouth in the blogosphere.

In 2001, there was still considerable room for serious thinking and debate among political blogs, and I enjoyed it. Why, back then, even Atrios and Instapundit said nice things about each other! But by 2007, whatever nuance that used to exist in blog commentaries has been largely abandoned in favor of echo chambers within each ideological community and the clash of binary opposites between them. (To illustrate the latter point, consider how intelligent political commentary gets automatically pigeonholed these days.) Some happy exceptions exist, but even the most sober-headed bloggers will have a legion of ugly commenters to deal with.

The developments noted above forced me to make a few adjustments. I maximized my online enjoyment over the past three years by focusing on photoblogging (moblogging, really) and blogging on personal blogs for my friends and family to read. As for the rest, well, I didn’t have the stomach to engage as a partisan, yet I would not abandon ideas that I felt right because I refused to stand by party leaders when they were wrong. And so I went on hiatus for the sake of living a little and thinking a lot.

After my long break I’ve decided to start this blog up again (Like Cooking a Small Fish is essentially the fifth iteration of my political blog) because 2008 will be an important year in the US and China. America will choose another president — and potentially a radically different direction — while China, thanks not only to the Olympics but also to American electoral politics, will be thrust into the spotlight. There’s a wonderful opportunity here to explore issues of governance, the economy, and society, and the road ahead is not so narrow that the bombthrowers will be the only travelers.

Given my time constraints I want to make this an essay-style blog with a few posts each week rather than dozens of posts daily. I blog to relax, to get ideas out of my head and onto paper (symbolically, of course), and also because living in China means I need to write regularly lest the local color sneak into my English. If you read my blog, I hope you enjoy it, even if you disagree with me — and odds are you will.