Monday, March 22, 2010

Google silent as China rants

The editor's note read: "After four years' developing business in China, Google's revolt timing is likely pregnant with meaning." The meaning of the latest drivel to emanate from China's state propaganda mouth piece was not entirely clear. So, what 'meaning' do they draw from Google's probable withdrawing from the Chinese mainland? The rhetoric issued via the People's Daily, Xinhua and China Daily infers that Google is in league with the US government and are attempting to 'politicalize' [sic] events surrounding cyberattacks highlighted earlier this year, and which China deny any involvement.

Doing business

The latest installment in the war of words aimed at Google, and those who seek to defend her, insisted that there was a "convention for proper behaviour for companies conducting business in a foreign country". The article in the China Daily on Monday said that "Compliance with the country's laws and regulations is also standard practice for international businesses."

This is appropriate of course. But there is a difference between China and many other countries when it comes to doing business, especially those involved within the tech industry. An evolving regulatory regime, targeting information technology-related products, is the chief cause of this sentiment. "Once every bit of the organisational infrastructure falls into place and every rule is implemented, there will not be much of a China market left for us," the regional head of a foreign semiconductor company told the Financial Times recently.

A survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China also highlights disquiet. The proportion of US businesses that feel foreign companies are increasingly unwelcome to participate and compete in the Chinese market rose to 38% in February, up from 26% just two months earlier. 

The mood is not restricted to American companies. Businesses from all over the world and across a wide range of sectors are becoming increasingly disenchanted about operating in China, according to Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China. "The mood has obviously soured in several areas," Wuttke told the Financial Times on Monday. "Businesses feel the market is growing but the access is getting narrower." In particular some 57% of US high-tech and information technology companies said they expect to lose business in China as a result of new rules laid down by Beijing. 

The writing was clearly on the wall when Hu Stern and several colleagues were arrested last year accused of bribery and of stealing state secrets. It was widely seen as 'sour grapes' by China after losing a lucrative business deal. The charges of bribery were particularly galling especially in a country which has a thin line between 'bribery' and 'honoring' a potential business transaction with a gift. That trial started on Monday but in what has been dubbed an 'open trial' western media were excluded, yet another fine example of censorship. Further details have yet to emerge, however it appears Stern Hu, Rio Tinto's executive iron ore salesman in China, has pleaded guilty to bribery charges in a Shanghai court. The surprise development appears to vindicate the decision by the Chinese authorities to prosecute the Australian citizen and his three associates [FT]. It may only deepen widely held beliefs the executive was coerced or threatened.

"When in Rome..."

The China Daily article uses one phrase to support its argument that foreign companies should abide by Chinese laws. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," it says. Should we infer from this that we might all go around spitting, ignore no- smoking signs, speak loudly on mobile phones, push in bus-queues and infringe copyright with complete disregard? Well, perhaps not.

The article goes on to say the cyberattack controversy surrounding Google and its developments are "increasingly challenging our common sense and knowledge about the world." Given the information concerning the rest of the world is so highly filtered, it is perhaps not surprising that awareness and knowledge about the world is lacking. More laughably it says "the US company will be the biggest loser in all of this". Doubtful, given Google wasn't getting very far by staying.

In another article published by the China Daily it asked if China could live without the Internet giant. It referred to a report in The Washington Post published Friday with the headline, "For Chinese people, loss of Google would mean 'nothing but darkness'", but dismissed the comments as the current "China Threat" theory which is being discussed in the Western media.

Companies like KFC, McDonalds and CocaCola had managed to create business in China, so why was Google unable to? China daily called Google "arrogant" and added that it was behaving like the imperialists who "cracked open China's door by warships and cannons in the 19th century".

The information flow

There is a vast difference between food and drinks manufacturers and tech companies. A Big Mac is not censored nor a diet Coke restricted. But the free flow of information on the Internet is. Xinhua in its most recent rant insisted, "In fact, no country allows unrestricted flow on the Internet of pornographic, violent, gambling or superstitious content, or content on government subversion, ethnic separatism, religious extremism, racialism, terrorism and anti-foreign feelings."

Maybe no country is proud of such websites existing, but the flow of information is not blocked in many western nations. While child pornography is quite rightly blocked, many adult sites operate freely in the West. Live Leak with its often violent imagery is not affected by government censors. gambling sites are plentiful. Superstitious sites are widespread whether that be those purporting bizarre religious beliefs or those foisting ideas about alien abduction. Government subversion and political discourse has a large presence on the net. Class War is not blocked in the UK despite its obvious and clear motive to build for a revolution against the ruling elite. Even racist, extremist and what might be deemed as terrorist sites exist. While many find content on some or all the above objectionable, a relatively small amount is blocked. 

There is also a vast difference between what China says it filters and blocks and what is actually blocked. Nowhere in any of the articles published on state media does it list these, nor explain why they are blocked. As of March this year the following Google services remained blocked: Blogger, YouTube, Picasa web, Google Sites, the Google Dev site and Google Health has been blocked in the past year as has GMail. Google docs is constantly affected. Sometimes it is only available in http mode [insecure] while at other times it is entirely inaccessible. The Chrome Extensions site was blocked for a time but became available again in early February. The Google Wave invite link remains blocked as does the Wave extensions site.

Facebook and Twitter are among the more well known sites blocked by Chinese censors. But Typepad, Wordpress, Friendfeed, Tumblr, technorati, imageshack, Scribd, Dailymotion, Liveleak, Vimeo, URLs, Twitpic, Pirate Bay, the Python programming software download link and Livejournal are amongst the dozens of other western sites affected. Even the IMDB was blocked for a short while this year. Sites deemed too political include BBC Chinese, China Digital Times, Danwei,, Amnesty, RSF and Wikileaks.

No word from Google

By late Monday Google still had not issued a much anticipated statement as to its possible withdrawal plans. The Chinese have called Google unfriendly and irresponsible, arrogant and of 'politicalizing itself'. Google have mostly kept quiet since its original statement in January. However China for its part has been loud and vociferous. It has appeared far more unfriendly in its criticism. It has politicized more than most. And it appears arrogant in failing to accept the widespread curbs of censorship which go far beyond the protection of its citizens fro dubious Internet content. It is also irresponsible in failing to create a better business environment for foreign companies to operate. This not only thwarts those foreign companies, it may create the feeling among those companies that doing business with or in China is not worth the struggle. It will not be Google that will lose, in the long term it will be China that loses.


If any good has come from this long drawn-out affair it is that the "Google China incident" has greatly heightened awareness among normally apolitical Chinese Internet users about the extent of Internet censorship in their country. It has sparked a lot of debate and soul searching about the extent to which ... [they're] isolated from the rest of the world [rconversation]. Some have even drafted an open letter to Google and the Chinese government. Interestingly the letter is posted on Google docs [Chinese]. Others aware of the censorship tested to see if filters had yet been removed from as some reports suggested. The results were posted on various Internet forums [digicha].

Twitter has also bee alive with activity concerning Google's possible exit. One user by the name "Natural2012″ joked on Twitter the morning after an all-night vigil on March 15th, "If Google doesn't obey Chinese law … it should go back to the U.S.; if the Chinese government doesn't comply with WTO rules, it should get out; if the Party doesn't respect the rules of human rights, [it should] go back to Mars." Isaac Mao, a China-Internet researcher and blogging pioneer, counted more than 4,000 posts about on micro-blogging service Twitter over the course of the night [some people obviously have too much time on their hands!].

But there is also much ill-feeling, stirred up in the main by the state media which have, as one might expect, been far from truthful in their reporting of the issues. The Google row is also coming to a head at a time when US-China relations are deeply strained by calls from US politicians to confront China over its undervalued currency, as well as rows over trade and arms sales to Taiwan and Tibet. 

[other commentary Computerworld / Telegraph blog / WSJ blog]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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