- By Will Inboden
One year ago, who could have imagined that the most significant international gesture of the year on behalf of freedom in China would come not from the United Nations, the United States, or another government, but from an internet search company? Such was Google’s principled decision this week to follow through on its earlier threat and withdraw from China rather than acquiesce in continued Chinese government control. Beijing reacted with predictable bluster, but I suspect the Politburo leaders were stunned when Google called their bluff and chose to lose access to the most potentially lucrative emerging market in the world rather than keep censoring itself. Google’s concern was not just China’s restrictions on its search results but, more ominously as my FP colleague Blake Hounshell highlighted, the co-opting of Google technology to use in surveillance and entrapment of political dissidents (not to mention from a commercial standpoint the potential theft of sensitive intellectual property). No longer was Google just complicit in restricted information flow; it was now potentially a new tool for the persecution of Chinese activists.
This recalls another recent landmark moment in the turbulent encounter between Chinese state capitalism and Western technology companies, but with a less happy outcome. The Chinese Government’s overconfident posture towards Google likely drew inspiration from Yahoo’s shameful capitulation to the Public Security Bureau in 2004 by turning over Chinese dissident Shi Tao, whose only "crime" was using his Yahoo email account to communicate with overseas Chinese democracy activists. Shi Tao is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence.
Yahoo publicly admitted its role in late 2005. I was working at the National Security Council at the time, and shortly after Shi Tao’s arrest, some NSC colleagues and I met with a senior Yahoo executive to get their side of the story. It was a thoroughly disillusioning meeting. The Yahoo exec maintained a defiant, defensive posture, clinging to the talking points that Yahoo was just following the local laws in the country it was working in, couldn’t get involved in a "political case" like this, and besides didn’t U.S. Government policy encourage economic engagement with China? To which we reminded him that U.S. policy also encouraged human rights and free speech in China, which Yahoo’s actions directly undermined. Perhaps even more distressing was that the Yahoo exec made clear that his company felt no obligation, even in private, to remonstrate with the Chinese authorities over the arrest or to do anything to assist Shi Tao or his family. It was not an auspicious moment for the argument that Western technology companies will inevitably bring freedom to China. Following months of bad publicity and Congressional pressure, Yahoo eventually reversed course and expressed remorse.
In contrast, this fascinating Wall Street Journal article describes Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s instrumental role in Google’s decision, drawing on his childhood memories of totalitarian control in the Soviet Union. Now today’s China, of burgeoning state capitalism that is communist in name only, is overall so dissimilar to the erstwhile USSR that the comparison is for good reason hardly even conceivable. But that is precisely why the few similarities – such as autocratic one-party rule, or pervasive surveillance, or intolerance of dissent – are so jarring yet so revealing. Brin saw what so many other Westerners either cannot or will not see: that in his words "in some aspects of [China’s] policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism."
So now Google is doing its part, but what about the U.S. Government and other free governments around the world? As my Legatum Institute colleague Jean Geran has argued, the Obama Administration’s elusive democratization agenda needs to put internet freedom issues on the front burner. Fortunately Secretary Clinton’s January speech was a strong step in that direction. And CNAS’s Richard Fontaine this week articulated some important new policy steps that need to be taken to help ensure that the internet continues to be a force for liberty rather than a tool of oppression.
Finally, Google’s decision marks an important data point in the ongoing debate over the connection between economic liberty and political liberty, and even the direction of history. One often hears the contention that growing economic freedom — and with it growing prosperity — will lead inevitably towards greater political freedom. And there is much evidence, from history and political science, that in many countries this can often be the case. But the Chinese Government and its "Beijing Consensus" of economic growth and one-party control, is determined to resist this pattern. And as Google has shown, these trends depend often as much on the specific decisions by commercial actors to put long-term principle over short-term incremental gains in market access – especially if that access depends on government control rather than free market merit. So this decision by Google is actually a strong act to promote more genuinely free markets in China. Which over time will also prove to be the most profitable.