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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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The party needed a way to attach the individual surfer’s online presence to other communications and, ultimately, to their danwei—the work unit holding their employment and political history file. Cisco proposed that identity searches could employ the one thing that everyone in China would soon have—a cell phone. By tying voice patterns to surfing patterns and then to the danwei, and making that file accessible to local police, the courts, and the Public Security Bureau, you could have a paperless legal system—just a couple of clicks separating the man in the street from the labor camp. Thus surveillance, supplied by Cisco and Nortel and, in the early days, Sun Micro, became the outfield—and these companies were the MVPs of Golden Shield. 

On occasion, players didn’t cooperate. Microsoft resisted handing over its encryption source codes in 2000, even building an industry coalition in Beijing with tacit support from the Commerce Department. It was a brief shining moment but the company quietly relented a few years later. After handing over the emails of Chinese journalist Shi Tao and others (Shi got ten years in prison), Yahoo was sued by human rights groups, earned the contempt of Chinese citizens, and sputtered its way through a congressional hearing. But it was sputtering financially as well and eventually sold most of its China business to the goliath Alibaba.com in late 2005. 

Enter Google. With its arrival in China in January 2006, the party appeared to have realized its third goal, after censorship and surveillance: legitimacy. Like most things in China, this involved a degree of doublethink. On the one hand, the Chinese Internet now looked normal—by allowing the term “Googled,” the party had given a sop to the Chinese intelligentsia in any conversation with their foreign colleagues. On the other hand, Google agreed to censor their search results so that the words Tiananmen Square brought up images of government officials and American tourists taking a languid stroll at sunset, and the words Falun Gong only produced obscene, cackling government attack sites. Google insisted on a results disclaimer, but the Chinese audience got the message: Google was happy to play shortstop for the party.  

Google justified this transgression of its “don’t be evil” corporate philosophy with the usual just-arrived-in-China pabulum: The censorship is probably temporary (give them enough rope, as Marx said), better to engage China than to boycott it, and, anyway, the country is changing. Indeed it is, but it is not heading in the direction that Google hoped. 

The first portent was the Beijing Olympics. Under the pretext of “security,” practically every expat in China, no matter how long-term, settled, or “indispensable” from a business standpoint was suddenly informed that he had to leave China well before the “One World, One Dream” festivities and stay out for a while. This came at a time when the Chinese were backsliding on government regulations, preferential treatment for Chinese companies, and intellectual property rights. Far from opening to the world, China was closing the door. 

The actual slam occurred shortly afterwards: The party dabbled with requiring the installation of “Green Dam” software (having ripped off the code from Cyber-Sitter, a California company) on all PCs. Then Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were blocked. Why was the party tossing away its hard-won normalcy? In part, because it was facing an unprecedented external challenge from a suburban home in North Carolina.  

In the living room sat a couple of Chinese Falun Gong practitioners whose engineering training dated back to the early days of the Chinese web. Because the Chinese Internet was constructed like a company barracks, in orderly blocks, the Falun Gong engineers, by looking at a seemingly meaningless series of numbers, could tell with reasonable certainty if an address was state-connected. With this knowledge and their hacking skills, they could track state security behavior. Eventually they discerned patterns and corners where the dogs gave only a cursory sniff. They built special programs simulating those corners, but with hairline cracks in the firewalls, and then used those cracks to send loads of uncensored news, the “Nine Commentaries” (Falun Gong’s ur-condemnation of the party), and instructions for Chinese users to set up their own wormholes.  

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