Google Isn’t China’s Problem. Press Freedom Is.

Sure, Google's retreat from China is a big story. But we may be missing the bigger one.

Li Xin/AFP/Getty Images
Li Xin/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Google finally made good on its vow to pull its search business out of China. The company announced that, henceforth, queries to its famed search engine made from mainland Chinese IP addresses would be routed through Google’s Hong Kong site. It was a decision made after the company went public with complaints about surveillance and censorship in the People’s Republic.

Is this a big story about the freedom of information in China? Sure. Chinese Web fans worry that Google’s decision to leave the field to its homegrown rivals — such as Baidu — bodes ill for the future of the Chinese Internet. Without Google, the reasoning goes, Chinese cyberspace could well become more isolated and less competitive, a poor prospect for Chinese businesses and citizens.

But David Bandurski — a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project — is worried about something else entirely. He says life is becoming harder for China’s journalists, the ones who fill the Web with those stories in the first place. "The real issue isn’t about a particular website or search engine," he says. "It is about the broader principle of public access to information."

Put bluntly: The climate for China’s journalists is worsening, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Google, or with the Chinese Communist Party’s pretense to absolute ideological control of information. The problem is not that the party is scrubbing the Internet to remove stories it deems negative. The problem is the corrupt network between business and government, which places unwarranted pressure on journalists and editors. "It’s no longer about abstract propaganda discipline," Bandurski says. "These days it’s about specific money and power interests."

Case in point: In 2008, a newspaper called the China Business Post published a story that exposed malfeasance at the regional branch of one of China’s biggest state banks. The bankers protested — to powerful effect. One of their allies turned out to be a well-placed party chief who was tied to the businessmen through personal relationships. The next thing the journalists knew, the government had suspended the paper.

"The network of agencies devoted to media control in China, including the propaganda department, are now, more than ever before, mediators and players in a vast web of power and profit," Bandurski wrote in an analysis of the incident published in March 2009 in the Far Eastern Economic Review. "They no longer dish out just propaganda dictates; they dish out personal and professional favors too."

In some ways, these new party-backed capitalists are proving even more controlling of coverage than the old party communists were. Chinese journalists now complain of ever-tightening restrictions imposed by businesspeople supported by local political muscle. This cronyism even has a name in China — guan shang gou jie, or, roughly, "business and government hooked together." In the old days, government officials called newspaper editors to complain about violations of the party line; now, they’re calling to crack down on unflattering coverage of local companies. "Over the last five or 10 years these networks [of influence] have hardened," Bandurski says. As soon as someone at a company gets wind that someone is writing a story on them, they will tip off friends in the local government: "And they’ll intervene and block it while it’s still in the works." Many Chinese journalists are deeply demoralized as a result. The word they use to describe the current atmosphere is "winter."

To be sure, some journalists are still getting scoops — like Wang Keqin, a dogged investigative reporter who broke a big story earlier this month about a private company that used its cozy connections to local notables to gain a monopoly on vaccine distribution in Shanxi province (population: 33 million). As Wang reported, negligent handling of the vaccines has led to the deaths of four children and permanent injury for at least 74 more. The story is threatening to mushroom into yet another scandal of major proportions — though the party and its affiliates have been working hard to contain it. As Bandurski hastens to point out, stories like this get broken not because of some policy of calculated tolerance, but as a result of "chaos": The alliance between government and business does not always function seamlessly; the authorities sometimes work at cross-purposes. What meager room for genuine critical reporting exists in today’s China is almost entirely the random product of such lapses, Bandurski says. It’s certainly not the result of official tolerance.

It is worth noting, perhaps, that the Chinese Communist Party, entirely aware of the Web’s transformative possibilities, does not allow Internet organizations to hire their own journalists. If you want a journalist to break some vital story in the public interest, more often than not you’ll still need to open a good old-fashioned newspaper or a magazine. The great virtue of the Chinese Web, Bandurski says, is its ability to take these local stories and turn them into national ones — like the 2008 tainted-milk scandal that ultimately affected some 30,000 babies. Regional newspapers played a key role in publicizing the scandal, which went viral as soon as Chinese websites picked it up.

But the Internet can only do that if reporters keep producing stories — and that is getting harder all the time. Chinese journalists rely on the Web to publicize their scoops, but the government uses the Web to control public opinion. (It is worth pointing out that the government in Beijing has long assured its own people that the Internet is censor-free. One of the important ramifications of Google’s retreat is that it has exposed the fraudulence of this claim.) Some — most notably the New York TimesNicholas Kristof in 2005 — have argued that the steady expansion of broadband in China will ultimately pose a fundamental challenge to one-party rule.

Bandurski, by contrast, derides this view as "cyber-utopianism." For Bandurski, the litmus test is not whether netizens can run effective searches. It is whether reporters are allowed to report. That is a story that is bigger than the fate of a single company.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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