No, China’s Not Arrogant
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

No, China’s Not Arrogant

 
 

Are you surprised Google has taken the stand it has over the censorship row with the Chinese government? What does this row say about the prospects for any easing of government control of the Internet?

I’ve got a different take on this from many other people. I’m surprised that Google has taken this stand because when it initially went to China the censorship system was already in place—it knew it had to face this situation and decided to go anyway. But now it’s saying that it doesn’t want to operate like this anymore. Generally speaking, this isn’t a very good strategy for any business entering China. Companies should do a careful study, weigh the pros and cons, anticipate problems and then make the decision.

Of course, as the situation in a country evolves, a company may reassess its position. But, generally speaking, it’s better to announce any new position after a final decision has been reached. In Google’s case, it announced its decision to stop censoring search results first, then indicated it was prepared to negotiate with the Chinese government to see if there might be a mutually acceptable solution. But in my view, it would have been better to try to negotiate first, and only announce any decision once it was clear negotiations couldn’t produce any agreement. Announcing a decision first was seen as an open challenge to the Chinese government, which diminished the chances of a negotiated solution.

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I think the Chinese government for its part will certainly avoid any suggestion that it’s giving in to Google’s open challenge to its censorship rules. I think that perception is something that’s very important to them to avoid—not just in dealing with a company, but with any sort of open challenge. I think the Chinese government always feels that it can’t be seen to be weak, that if it’s challenged and is seen to back down, then that opens the floodgates and other people and organisations will immediately follow suit. So in general, they’ll work very hard to avoid the perception that they’ll give in under pressure.

That said, it’s not as if putting pressure on the Chinese government never works. For example, in the past, there have been confrontations with the United States over certain issues and the Chinese government seemed to have no choice but to back down. But it won’t admit it was because of external pressure. So, I think even if at some point in the future the government eases control of the Internet, it will carefully avoid the suggestion that it was because a company or individual or another country pressuring it.

Recent reports have suggested that China’s budget for domestic public security almost equals the country’s defence budget. What do you make of this level of expenditure, and what kinds of threat is the government currently focused on?

Clearly these figures show the authorities are worried about potential threats to stability, and that’s why you have this huge amount of spending on domestic security. One concern is ethnic tensions. There are vast areas—Tibet and the Uighur autonomous region for example—where there have been serious problems in the last couple of years and which will take a huge government effort to monitor, anticipate problems and try to deal with possible security threats.

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