Chinese Censorship: The Google Controversy

The communist government in The People’s Republic of China has been censoring information available to citizens for years, but only recently has censorship been brought to the forefront. With the expansion of Internet access and proliferation of social networking media, the Chinese government has cracked down with a heavy hand in Internet regulation. As the restrictions become tighter and the censoring becomes more and more noticeable, Chinese citizens are falling under tighter social control by the government. The Google controversy erupted in China, shining a light on the issue of censorship, and brought China’s regime to the attention of the world. The controversy provided a context for censorship, and a “window” into the Chinese government’s stringent social control practices. Although Google has been banned from China, and will be unable to fulfill their attempts to sway the Chinese government to decrease their censoring practices, Google has brought the issue of Chinese citizens’ rights to the world’s attention, which will hopefully initiate a movement for deregulation in China and other communist countries.

The history of censorship in China is an extensive one. The government’s attention used to be focused on the press; determining what editors were allowed to publish and what was forbidden. Now, with the advent of the Internet, the once-sleepy arm of press censorship has grown into an aggressive iron fist, intent on extensive Internet regulation. “Today, China censors everything from the traditional print press to domestic and foreign Internet sites; from cell phone text messages to social networking services; from online chat rooms to blogs, films, and email. It even censors online games” (Wines). Once relying solely on droves of censors sitting behind computers and monitoring Internet content, the Chinese government has now begun a more sophisticated approach to Internet censorship.

One way the Chinese government has updated its censoring capabilities is through automated programs. China’s most popular instant messaging service now automatically installs a program on the user’s computer, which monitors the user’s communication and blocks censored text (Wines). The government also tried to impose mandatory software for all personal computers that could be constantly updated with lists of banned topics. However, public and corporate outcry caused the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to back off, but the filtering program still remains on some school and Internet café computers (Wines).

Another way the Chinese government in combating human error in censorship is through public manipulation. In instances where unfavorable content is missed by censors, government monitors are dispensed to flood the rogue message boards or blogs with pro-government sentiments. Propaganda authorities in China now calculate that there is a two-hour window of response time in which online controversies can be spun in the government’s favor, before the reaction of citizens is beyond governmental control (Wines). The regulation of Internet sites and the censoring of nearly every communicative portal is essential according to the Chinese government, which says that “guiding public opinion is crucial to keep China from sliding into chaos and to preserve the party’s monopoly on power” (Wines). Perhaps the thing most crucial to the government’s censoring capabilities is what is known as “The Great Firewall of China.” All Internet traffic trying to reach China must pass through one of only three computer centers. The centers are located in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Having only three portals of access allows the Chinese government to easily monitor the inbound data and censor it according to a constantly changing list of forbidden topics.

Some Chinese citizens have found ways to get around “The Great Firewall of China,” but most are subjected to the content fed to them by the government. Google, which has operated in China since 2005, recently declared that the company would cease operations in China, no longer facilitating the government’s repression of citizens’ rights to free information. The ensuing controversy surrounding Google’s decision caught the world’s attention, opening eyes across the globe to the Chinese regime’s oppression of citizens, and allowing for people to become more educated about what’s happening on other parts of the world, even if they are unable to change it.

Google developed a Chinese-language interface in 2005 and began operating in China as “Google.cn” in 2006. Google agreed to comply with the Internet censorship laws of the People’s Republic of China, under the condition that they be allowed to place a disclaimer on censored pages. Thus, whenever a search was made through Google.cn and the results were censored due to China’s communist government’s will, a message appeared on the results page saying, “In accordance to local laws, regulations and policies, part of the search result is not shown” or “Search results may not comply with relevant laws, regulations or policy, and can not be shown.”

Google’s initial plan was to attempt to play a role in eventually decreasing China’s stringent censoring over time. The company said it would be better to play a role in advocating free speech than to be denied access to the mainland Chinese market altogether (Associated Press). However, Google’s sentiments changed after an alleged hacking scandal, which was traced back to China. Hackers, using “unusually sophisticated” attacks, according to Google, hacked into the company’s source code and Gmail information in attempts to gather information and monitor the online activity of Chinese human rights activists (Zetter). Google investigated the breach and traced the attack back to China, also finding that 34 other major companies had been targeted in similar attacks
trying to get information on weapons systems, political dissidents, and source code to power software applications.

In January 2010, following the attacks, Google announced that it would no longer censor search results on Google.cn, and would look for a way to keep operating in China without censoring content. Google hoped to work out a compromise with the Chinese government, but the Chinese government was not interested in what Google was proposing. In March 2010, Google began to cleverly redirect all Google.cn searches through its server in Hong Kong: Google.com.hk. Hong Kong, which was reunited with China in 1997, is governed fairly independently, and has a high level of free speech, allowing citizens to see unfiltered search results from Google.

Google’s side step of Mainland China’s censorship laws was a clever, albeit temporary, move. Unfortunately for most inhabitants of China’s mainland, unfiltered information found through searching the Google.com.hk search engine still could not be viewed in China due to the numerous, highly sophisticated firewalls built and enacted by the Chinese government. When citizens using Google.cn searched for material deemed inappropriate—like Tiananmen Square—all they would see was a blank screen. When searching for the same material through Google.com.hk, users would be able to see normal Google search results displayed, but, due to China’s firewalls, users would not be able to access any of the links on the results page (Singel). The Chinese government and its “Great Firewall” remained successful in keeping citizens from seeing information about topics the government deemed worthy of censoring. Citizens could not access information about past leaders or political movements; the Melamine-tainted milk scandal from a few years ago; Falun Gong; the Tiananmen Square Massacre; Taiwanese independence; political unrest in Tibet; or any other topic which challenged the ideology of the Chinese government (Singel).

Google’s redirecting of the search engines through the Hong Kong server was a calculated move. Technically, the company had not broken its contract with the Chinese government, even though it was clear that the government did not intend to let the sneakiness to continue. China released several vague statements about the situation, but didn’t seem to be really doing anything. The Chinese government’s lack of a quick response made it appear that Google had backed the Chinese government into a corner. If the government allowed the proliferation of unrestricted Internet access through Hong Kong, it would be a major step for Google and Chinese citizens’ rights. However, if the Chinese government did end the Hong Kong access, it would become very obvious to the Chinese citizens, as well as the watching world, just how stringent the government’s censorship is. As of March 30, 2010, the Chinese government made its decision, and all Google searches (including searches in other languages) were banned on China’s mainland. The only aspects of Google that are still available and allowed in China are Google Maps and Gmail (Associated Press).

The long-term ramifications of Google pulling out of China have yet to be fully realized. However, the announcement of Google’s decision did immediately begin to set some things in motion. Google timed their announcement to pull out of China so that the stock market would already be closed for the day, in hopes to avoid a selling frenzy (Zetter). Despite an effort to avoid financial backlash, “investors, not surprisingly, have seemed to be more interested in profit than principles. Google shares have slipped 5 percent since the January 12th warning” (Associated Press). Google’s empire brings in an estimated $24 billion per year, but Chinese operations only accounted for around $500 million of the annual total (Associated Press). However, while the immediate financial loss won’t be earth shattering for Google’s financial clout, the long-term consequences have stock market analysts worried. Opportunities tend to grow faster in China than in the United States, and with China’s dense population, the potential for future innovation and capital gain is enormous. This is the reason why so many other technological companies have not followed Google’s lead toward the moral compass. Google, aware of the companies remaining in China, decided to keep its research center in China in order to keep their top engineers out of the grasp of the other companies like Microsoft (Associated Press).

Another immediate consequence Google faced after their announcement was the safety of employees in China. Google’s lawyer said that while the announcement was timed with the closing of the stock market, it was also timed to coincide with early morning in China, so that employees could learn of the decision before they went to work (Zetter). In communist China, where dissenting citizens have been arrested, imprisoned, and even killed, the employees of Google were facing potential threats. Google said they were concerned about the safety of their employees in China, and that there is a real possibility that they will be interrogated or imprisoned by the Chinese government (Zetter).

While Google has had to face immediate issues stemming from its decision to pull out of China, the company has stood by its decision. Principle is the reason initially cited, and the company maintains that stance. A Google executive said,

We have the ability to make decisions without a lot of short-term financial focus. I expect that most other companies either do not agree with our principles, or, most likely, they agree with our principles but mechanically they can’t do it. So I suspect that you won’t see a lot of others [leaving China]. (Google: ‘Principle’)
The company, a financial and economic powerhouse, had the clout to take a stand against China’s infractions upon human rights, in a time when few others have that capability.

Despite the monumental importance of the Olympics for China, neutral entities such as the International Olympic Committee backed down when China broke its promise and restricted Internet access for the media. Google, however, has grown strong enough to actually impose disciplinary actions against the Chinese without direct political ramifications. When an organization has the capacity and courage to act on values that are fundamental to its operations, its leaders must act or risk undermining the group’s purpose and foundations. If Google is an organization that believes in net-neutrality, stands for something greater than itself and wants to continue to be a leader in world affairs, it has no choice but to strengthen its resolve and do no evil. (Duong)

Google definitely took a stand against the moral infractions of China’s communist regime, and the world is taking notice. As China grows more and more into a totalitarian regime with a firm grasp on information regulation, Chinese citizens must recognize that their basic right to information is being egregiously infringed upon. The Chinese government not only blocks sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and any personal communication not supporting the regime’s ideology, but it goes a step further, flooding the Internet with its own self-serving propaganda. Dissonant views are blocked, and then subsequently replaced with the hegemonic views of the government, in the guise of bloggers and chat room users. The government has even now begun promoting state-friendly clones of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube (Wines). The Chinese government’s blatant abuse of power and general disregard for citizens’ has been brought to light thanks to Google’s courageous stance against censorship. As the proliferation of media coverage begins to give way to political coverage, figures like Hilary Clinton are publicly addressing the issues surrounding Google and China’s social control. Hopefully, this political acknowledgement will grow into political action. Although Google may have lost a source of revenue, the company gained a clear conscience and an image of social responsibility, and set the Chinese citizens up to gain significant improvements in their basic rights now that the world’s eyes have been opened to the repressive censorship issue in China

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