Too much of the discussion of Google’s departure has focused on censorship of political ideas, as though the problem was whether a Google search of “Tiananmen” should include a 21-year old photograph of a (very brave) man standing before a line of Chinese tanks.
The reality, however, is that the core of the Google-China dispute is about the perceived competency of the Chinese central government. When the Chinese authorities themselves acknowledge $35 billion in governmental waste and fraud, it suggests a scale of corruption and inefficiency that requires more accountability.
But for the CCP to acknowledge this as a national problem, as opposed to problems at the local level, would raise real questions about the competency and effectiveness of the central government. If corruption and bad governance is widespread, then either the government is aware and helpless, or unaware and incompetent. Small wonder, then, that individuals in China, such as Zhao Lianhai, who seek to use the Internet to publicize problems such as the milk powder poisoning incidents are promptly jailed.
In light of the growing incidences of mass unrest, often sparked by concerns over pollution, corruption, and health hazards, it is vital to maintain the appearance that the problems are local, and the responses are limited. For Google not to participate raises the specter of groups discovering that corruption and problems are widespread. Worse, it might lead to a national reaction.
In this light, the Chinese government’s reaction to Google’s decision to withdraw its search engines from China is both ironic and illuminating. The Central Propaganda Department (zhonggong zhongyang xuanchuan bu) has apparently issued instructions to domestic news sites, including newspapers and broadcast media, but also blogs and other social media, on how to characterize and discuss Google’s decision.
To ensure that Chinese discussants properly adhere to the narrative, news sections are instructed to use only central government media content, but not to engage in their own investigative reporting. Commentary and discussion programs must be cleared by central authorities first, while blogs are not permitted to discuss the issue at all.
Furthermore, Chinese media is enjoined from reporting on Google’s own press releases, and to place the Chinese perspective front-and-center.
What these instructions would suggest is that Google’s decision to withdraw may generate far greater repercussions in China than much of the recent debate has suggested. It may well be that more people will now question what information the government was restricting access to, such that Google should opt to leave rather than comply.
This would also suggest that Google’s immediate response to shift its operations to Hong Kong will be insufficient. If significant numbers of Chinese try to access Google by way of Hong Kong, the central government will face the difficult decision of either allowing the citizenry to circumvent government restrictions; limiting access to Hong Kong, with other economic and financial implications; or clamping down on Hong Kong, thereby raising questions about the “one country, two systems” model that Beijing would also like to apply to Taiwan.
It would appear that this clash between an American corporation and the Chinese government will continue to play out for some time to come.
One wonders if this is the sort of governance envisioned by those who would praise the “reasonably enlightened group of people…[that] can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st Century”?