The Magazine

Google vs. Beijing

It’s hard to do no evil when you work with the Chinese regime

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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Google vs. Beijing

Western corporations never die in China, they just fade away. They don’t do what Google has threatened to do: Slam the door on its way out. Google’s decision to stop censoring its Chinese search engine—announced on the company’s blog on January 12 and thus guaranteed to annoy the propriety-obsessed Chinese leadership—may have only minor technical impact on Chinese users. Yet it’s a bellwether, revealing the true direction and the inherent fragility of the Chinese Internet. 

Of all the post-Tiananmen dreams of Chinese liberation, the Chinese Internet has always been the most enticing. In the early 1990s, a frontal attack on the Communist party’s hold on the Chinese state appeared impossible, and dissident attention shifted to a very different strategy opened up by Deng Xiaoping’s reaffirmation of the reformist economic agenda during his 1992 Southern Tour. A great wave of entrepreneurial activity, technology, and commercialism, it was hoped, would simply sweep away the rotting system. Thus the so-called “New Economy”—fueled by the infusion of Western capital—and the growth of the Internet at the end of the 1990s seemed an answer to a dissident prayer, offering a sort of technological end run around the party system.

A decade ago, the Chinese Internet was small, but it was also in a state of nature. The party blocked websites, but it was a clumsy, labor-intensive affair and easily circumvented. Dissident messages were considered moderately “safe for work.” Rumors, critiques of the party, gossip—often from a nationalist or a labor perspective—would continually flare up on my Chinese coworkers’ screens. Internet cafés—the cheap ones, the ones that didn’t serve lattes—were packed tight with computers and young Chinese. They sprung up in the Beijing alleyways, the hutongs, like crack-houses in an American ghetto, cheek by jowl with the open-air toilets. 

Perhaps because of the hopefulness of this fleeting moment when China was simply hustling to get on the scoreboard, Western cyber-utopians have never understood the party’s Internet objectives. The party had no interest in total control—in “nailing Jell-O to the wall,” as Bill Clinton called it back in 2000. Instead, the party saw the Internet as a way to mobilize Chinese nationalism and prosperity. And they noticed something else, something that was just a gleam in the eye of Google’s founders: The Internet is far more revealing of who its users actually are than any mass communication technology that the world had heretofore seen. And that information is readily available.

The Internet meant that a bunch of autocrats who didn’t get out much could respond to the Chinese grass roots. They could encourage students to blow off steam by chucking bricks at the U.S. or Japanese embassies. They could judge precisely when the tainted milk powder scandal reached critical mass and it was time to execute a local official or two. With a few prolific trolls, they could push web discussions where they wanted them to go, crushing complaint and clearing the intellectual ground as far as the eye could see. The Chinese leadership could suddenly observe dissent like a bacteria growing in a controlled lab. They could offer it nourishment, creating platforms and spaces to breed, and then pour acid on the entire experiment. 

The Communist leadership had learned something from the close call of Tiananmen: Don’t put your faith in the big battalions because they can flip-flop. Diversify. Fill Beijing with small military units and enough will stay loyal, and make sure the avenues can sustain the weight of armored vehicles as they rush to the center. So, they decided, let the Internet service providers proliferate. Let the Westerners in. But make sure the main Internet corridors are patrolled by the party. 

They called this approach the Golden Shield. In baseball terms, the censorship effected for the party by Yahoo, and eventually Microsoft, was the infield. If you watch people, and they know you are watching, they will censor themselves (in the case of Chinese blogs, you will even observe them displaying a certain belligerent pride in toeing the party line). Golden Shield wasn’t aimed at students viewing pornography. It was targeted at what training documents written by Cisco employees called “Falun Gong evil cult and other hostile elements.” 

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