Google didn’t have to wait very long to find out if China was going to renew its license to operate in the country. On Sunday, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted a government official as confirming that the company’s application had been approved. The decision followed a high-profile spat between Google and the Chinese government over censoring of results in Google’s search engine and the company’s decision in March to automatically divert users to a website based in Hong Kong to sidestep the restrictions.
So which side has given in? According to Rebecca MacKinnon, a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, it’s certainly not Google. She says that some of the commentary suggesting otherwise is misplaced, arguing that Google’s only change to make it compliant with Chinese rules has had ‘no substantive impact on what Chinese Internet users can or cannot access via google.cn.’
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‘(T)he only thing that has changed since March is that after typing "google.cn" into the browser's address bar and hitting "return," users have to make one extra click before reaching the uncensored google.com.hk…If you have grade school literacy in Chinese it's extremely obvious from looking at that page that if you want to search anything other than music or shopping you can simply click through to google.com.hk. I don't see how adding the extra click prevents users of Google's general search from using the service any more than the direct redirection from google.cn to google.com.hk which Google implemented in March.’
On the possible reasons for the Chinese decision, she says it appears that the pragmatists within the Chinese government won out. It’s a reasonable observation—as she notes, refusing the license would have meant shutting Google out of China completely, thus sending an extremely negative message to the international business community.
If this is the case, it comes at a good time for China, following criticism from the likes of GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt,who earlier this month took a rare pubic swipe at the Chinese government by stating that the country was becoming increasingly protectionist. According to the FT, Immelt pondered out loud in his a speech whether, ‘in the end they (China) want any of us to win, or any of us to be successful.’
On the issue of the Internet, at least, Chinese government officials won’t hear of any suggestion that they’re anything but open. Indeed, last month the government released a white paper on its Internet policy in which it claimed that: 'Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet.'
The problem (one of them, anyway) with China’s Internet policy position is that there are, well, several of them—at least according to a fascinating document compiled by Human Rights in China.
According to its latest China Rights Forum publication, the government has three ‘narratives’ for its Internet strategy—the white paper, which was designed for international consumption, an April ‘internal narrative’ that was delivered in a report by Wang Chen who heads the Information Office of the State Council, and a subsequent edited version of this report, which HRIC describes as ‘a sanitized official narrative for the Chinese people.’
The most interesting part of the HRIC report is where it highlights what was deleted from the internal narrative before it was presented for public consumption, including (their bolding):
• description of domestic propaganda and ideological work to guide public opinion online and
unify public thinking and expansion of China’s cultural soft power abroad via news and commercial
channels and websites in foreign languages;
• elaboration of the guiding principles for developing and managing the Internet: Deng
Xiaoping theory, the “Three Represents,” and “blaz[ing] a new trail of Internet development and
management with Chinese characteristics”;
• description of the preliminary Internet information security protection system and the policy
of “active defense and comprehensive prevention”.
It seems Chinese actually had a day to wrestle with the differences, with the original speech by Wang for the internal narrative having been posted on May 4, before being replaced on May 5 with the official version.
As HRIC notes: ‘Perhaps the lesson is that it is extremely difficult to take back information once it has been distributed on the Internet, just as it is difficult to push the fresh air—and the inevitable flies—back out the window once it has been opened.’
I wrote last month about official doublespeak over China’s Internet policy. Seems like I was out by one.