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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It was a dynamic process. Bill Xia, the public face of the engineers, remembers waking up one morning to find that the party censors had disabled the system. He corrected it. Ten minutes later, it was down again. And so it went for months, like salvos between the trenches, with activity falling into a lull over the Chinese Spring Festival, then starting up again after the party guys got back to the office. The Falun Gong engineers introduced new weapons: spam attacks on a vast scale, dummy websites that would proliferate automatically, and evolutionary algorithms that could change Internet addresses many times within a single second yet somehow bookmark normally. 

These caused havoc for the party censors—entire Chinese government news sites were blocked by accident, days where the entire Chinese Internet slowed to a crawl with incalculable losses to Chinese ecommerce. The engineers soon gathered diverse reinforcements: Ultrareach, Freenet, and the other dissident systems that today make up the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIF). The consortium became a lifeline for the underground network of Chinese activists and a conduit for uncensored information, metastasizing from the Chinese Internet into printouts and pamphlets dropped off on doorsteps across the villages of China—usually in the dead of night. 

On a “Quit the CCP” website, millions of Chinese citizens clicked a button that renounced their party membership. Most of those who clicked probably weren’t party members, yet for all the Falun Gong hype and (understandable) wishful thinking, the significance is real. These were promissory gestures of rejection from Chinese citizens of all backgrounds and beliefs. GIF now allows well over half-a-million Chinese citizens a day to surf freely. (And it is not just boring old malcontent Chinese using GIF, but also young Iranians. GIF is responsible for a large share of the uncensored communication coming out of Iran since the aborted green revolution.) 

Yet we have to measure these achievements against the impressive successes on the party side. The Chinese Internet has seen spectacular growth. It looks real. Blogging flourishes. News circulates, some of it from party-sympathetic Western reporters and Phoenix TV. In most countries, the revelation of shoddily constructed schoolhouses in an earthquake zone would have brought the government down. In China, reporters were so gratified to be given a free hand to report on dramatic rescues in Sichuan for two weeks that when they were told to clear out and ignore the wailing parents, they actually obeyed and dropped the story. Internet discussion boards appear free and unfettered (though the inevitable patriot comments are reputedly paid at .50 cents an entry). But that’s the point. This is the real “new economy,” where the party has turned censorship and surveillance into a viable economic model.

So why would Google leave? It isn’t hemorrhaging money; sources might differ about Google’s market share (likely between 15 and 30 percent), but there is no question that it has made inroads against Baidu.com, the Chinese search engine. In any case, the former head of Yahoo China told me that Yahoo always played down its actual numbers to avoid the Chinese government’s wrath. 

When Google announced its decision to stop censoring its Chinese search engine, it cited unauthorized access to the gmail accounts of 20 Chinese human rights activists. Yet the hacker angle looks more like a defense against a Yahoo-style lawsuit than a reason to leave. Given Hillary Clinton’s recent remarks on global Internet freedom, the administration may be angling for an arms control-style agreement with the Chinese leadership on global cyber security. But, quite frankly, if you do business in China, hacking is to be expected. My assumption is that every keystroke I (or any other human rights advocate) types eventually makes its way back to the Public Security Bureau. Google’s internal shakeups suggest the possibility of an inside job—hardly surprising when party members saturate your hiring base. And that sort of perfidy does tend to drive expat managers bananas. But the hacking accusations were just as likely a way to enlist the protective wing of the State Department. 

Which leaves: Don’t be evil. The party has been fighting GIF for some time, but was only partially confident that it could stop the penetration. Ergo the closing of the social networking sites where uncensored news could go viral. But it was never about preventing people from looking at CNN or preventing the occasional Hu Jintao crack or cartoon, as President Obama seemed to interpret a question on web freedom during his recent trip to China. There are far greater skeletons to hide: live organ harvesting of political and religious prisoners, for example. My research indicates that the practice is far more widespread than previously understood, extending beyond Falun Gong to Christians, Uighurs, and even Tibetan prisoners of conscience. When Google made its decision to leave China, it was making a decision to leave something behind. I don’t mean a bad business environment, but an evil one. 

Will Google’s decision matter? Baidu users will continue to click on prefab options. Google.cn users, who tend to do more elaborate searches for a more targeted result will mostly find another way. But the majority of Chinese users will continue to avoid the sites that they know are truly dangerous to the regime. Remember, censorship is only the first line of defense. Which is why, from a technical standpoint, Google leaving China is newsworthy, emotional, and ultimately meaningless, a bit like the death of Princess Diana. By any sort of rational calculus, Diana’s departure didn’t really matter, except that the legitimacy of the English royalty has never really recovered from the death of the “People’s Princess.” 

We may never know the full story of Google’s departure, but we do know that China is not Iran, where the regime does not even bother with the illusion of a free Internet. In China, the entire country craves tokens of normalcy so deeply that people will nurture a delusion. Given the flowers spontaneously strewn across the Google headquarters sign in Beijing by ordinary Chinese, the party may have just lost the People’s Browser.

 

Ethan Gutmann, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is completing a book on the conflict between the Chinese state and Falun Gong.


 

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