Google’s announcement that it will stop restricting search results on its Chinese platform — a condition set when the Internet giant entered the Chinese market in 2006 — and the threat that it could pull out of China altogether if Beijing continues to launch cyber attacks for gathering information on human rights activists is a praiseworthy development. It shows that even large corporations that stand to make a fortune from the gigantic Chinese Internet market can abide by their principles when the state overreaches.
The decision may also have been self-interested, as the conditions imposed on Google for entry into China had tarnished its reputation, something that was put in sharp relief when Yahoo pulled out of China after data it gave the Chinese authorities resulted in the arrest of journalists. (Yahoo sold its China business to Alibaba Group [阿里巴巴] in 2005, while acquiring a 39 percent stake in Alibaba.)
Some commentators, including Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, have argued that Google’s battle with Beijing demonstrates that China has forever transformed the world and that, consequently, Google has already lost the fight.
“The Google model of a free and open Internet, an exemplar of the American idea of the future, cannot and will not prevail,” Jacques wrote in Newsweek last week. “China’s Internet will continue to be policed and controlled, information filtered, sites prohibited, noncompliant search engines excluded, and sensitive search words disallowed. And where China goes, others … will follow.”
This view is flawed because there is nothing teleological about authoritarianism, just as there is nothing teleological about democracy. Had the Internet existed when the Soviet Union was at its apex, would Jacques have made the same prediction, drawing on Russia’s centuries-old history of strong, centralized rule? Back then, did thinkers in the West argue that Moscow would forever alter the way we share information because the Soviet Union was censoring the media and arresting dissidents? Did we abandon dissident writers like Vaclav Havel and Czeslaw Milosz? Of course not.
In time, the Soviet Union, rife with contradictions and ossified by lack of freedoms, collapsed, and people like Havel were hailed as heroes.
China’s economy may be almost twice the size of the Soviet Union’s at its demise, and its population about six times as large, but this doesn’t mean the world will be more willing to accommodate Chinese authoritarianism than it did during the Cold War.
In fact, thanks to the ubiquity of electronic media and global travel, people today are more aware of what’s going on abroad, and are better equipped to access that information, than at any time. Even Chinese, who live under a regime seeking to control information, have a better chance of learning about the world than Czechs, Poles and Russians did under Soviet rule. And the thirst for that knowledge is equally strong. There is nothing in the Chinese character that makes them less inclined to seek the truth.
As China rises and its leadership shows no sign of liberalizing, the last thing we want to embrace is defeatism, believing that we can’t do anything about the impact this will have on our world. More than ever, people are starting to realize that China’s philosophy on freedom of expression is threatening our way of life. Ask Australians during the Melbourne International Film Festival, or Taiwanese when newspaper editors are fired as a result of pressure from Beijing.