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the author is hoping google's tussle wich china will push china to experience an internet reform. is that possible? i really doubt it. china had a firm stance this time and i worry about the hong kong access will be banned in the near future. even if china really wants a similar reform, it doesn't admit it's caused by the US company. |
South China Morning Post
Will Google's leave spur Beijing into experimenting with internet reform?
By transferring mainland Chinese search requests to its uncensored server in Hong Kong, Google may be the harbinger of reform for the mainland's internet. Just as the creation of special economic zones in the 1980s gradually opened China to foreign trade, Google's move could provide an opportunity for Beijing leaders to experiment with a special internet zone in Hong Kong and exemplify the benefits of openness.
After four years of operation on the mainland and suffering recent attacks on its e-mail system, allegedly from mainland hackers, Google began rerouting requests for Google.cn to google.com.hk last month. Media pundits warned of darkness descending on the mainland, offering reminders of Google's motto, "Don't be evil". It may be just a matter of time before mainland users completely lose access to Google. Confrontations between Google and Beijing could escalate. So far, the clash is much less dramatic than what has been described by most media reports.
First, contrary to popular perceptions, Google has not closed internet services on the mainland. It not only retains its research and development operations, but keeps most of its search services there. As of this writing, Google's video search, online shopping, map, music, translation and finance services - plus a host of others - still operate under the Google.cn domain name. The main services redirected to Hong Kong are Google Images, Google News and the main search page.
Second, Google's move has not significantly affected mainland internet users. Survey findings published in February's issue of Nature show that mainland academic communities rely heavily on such services as Google Scholar, and the site remains available under the Google.cn domain name. And, like internet users elsewhere, the average mainland user is more likely to seek entertainment, rather than politics. Those searching for political content know how to scale the firewalls.
Third, transnational corporations have not rallied to Google's crusade against Beijing's censors. The US domain-name registration firm GoDaddy.com did announce that it would no longer register domain names with the .cn suffix. But no other major Western firms operating on the mainland are in a hurry to leave the market - certainly not Google's main competitors like Yahoo and Microsoft. For global firms on the mainland, therefore, it's business as usual.
Fourth, there are worries that the mainland search engine market will become less innovative in Google's absence and Baidu will become a monopoly. While legitimate, these worries may be unwarranted. After all, Google has not abandoned the mainland market and Baidu's monopoly is far from secure, as it faces competition from Yahoo and Tencent, among others. More importantly, search engines are only a part of the internet market. When it comes to mainland internet culture, one cannot overstate the power of social networking websites and good old portals, which encompass gigantic online communities.
The Beijing-Google spat has not been free of costs. By far the most damage has been to China's national image. Yet, despite Google's provocative style and media hype about an epochal duel, official reactions in Beijing have been cool, with Communist Party authorities playing down the spat in the domestic media. Beijing also resisted politicising the issue. The regime will calculate how Google's new approach will affect its own legitimacy, and that will determine whether, to what extent and for how long authorities allow rerouted and uncensored Google.com.hk to be accessible from the mainland.
Google's moderate approach will not necessarily undermine the legitimacy of the regime. It may even be an opportunity in disguise for the Chinese leadership to experiment with reforming its stringent internet policies.
Gradualist and experimental reforms are consistent with Beijing's pragmatic developmental strategy. Wary as they are of the internet's subversive potential, top leaders have publicly acknowledged the Web's constructive role in channelling public opinion and exposing corruption.
However passionate Chinese citizens on the mainland are for free speech or broader political change, nowadays people are more likely to favour a gradualist approach. Chinese intellectuals wholeheartedly embraced Western-style democracy in the 1980s. They have since become less sure of themselves or a Western system transplanted to Chinese soil, not the least because they have seen troubles inside even the strongest Western democracies. They have no clear vision, or confidence, of a workable solution to the political challenges facing mainland China today. The rise of a strong public discourse on civil society, rather than strident calls for democracy, reflects this intellectual dilemma. Building a civil society is at least a useful first step. Despite the political control of the internet, a vibrant current of online activism has surged for years.
Maintaining open access to Google's mainland search engine in Hong Kong would be consistent with this evolutionary logic of Beijing's reform agenda and will be an instructive way of testing whether a freer internet will spell more or less trouble for the government. Chinese leaders will find that a better informed citizenry can help curb corruption, promote social justice, hold government officials accountable and aid in enforcing laws and regulations.
At a recent conference in Shenzhen, several prominent internet entrepreneurs called for the establishment of a Special Internet Zone in Shenzhen. Perhaps the rerouted Google.cn could serve as the first such free special internet zone. Success would show that a more open internet is in the interest of the Chinese citizenry.