A Chinese paradox Google challenged

Seated in the cobwebbed little office of Liu Wei, a professor of business administration at Chongqing University, listening to him document the city’s boom, I found my mind wandering as I gazed at his computer screen, open to a Google page.

From Chicago to Chongqing, Google makes the world go round. Today, there are citizens and ‘netizens’. The battle is on, at least in China.

China has become a very curious case. As Liu noted, “We are included in globalisation, an American-led concept, and we have benefited immensely.” Yet Beijing resists the very openness on which it depends. Openness for China is a means to an end — prosperity and development — but not a value.

This is the Chinese paradox Google now appears bent on challenging.
China is the world’s manufacturer. It is America’s creditor. It is using global technology and resources to fast-forward some 20 per cent of humanity to modernity. The churning landscape, of cranes and half-finished high-rises and new highways, speaks of a gargantuan national project inconceivable without the treasure globalisation has furnished.

Truly global

The imagery of this fast-forwarding is all global: The Chinese dream looks like nothing so much as the American dream.

Banner ads outside residential developments feature glittering young couples and images of golf courses. The bright young things clutching 3G phones in endless ads are chic, globalised metrosexuals.

The Communist Party has bought into the seduction of branding. It has grasped that Nokia and Uniqlo are the bread and circuses of the modern age.

I took the new high-speed train from Chongqing to Chengdu across the rolling hills of Sichuan. The distance is about the same as New York to Boston but this train service has cut travel time below two hours! Everywhere the countryside is being gouged open as workers heave some new project into being.

In its way, this hoisting of a great mass from backwardness is inspiring. Even the mind-numbing statistics elicit vague awe. Many people speak movingly of how they live better now than any previous generation. China’s leaders have been astonishingly deft in delivering development from deprivation.

And yet. They seem at times to be chasing their own shadows, as if nothing is as scary as the very development they have conjured.

At a dinner party, a woman told me how her blog had been shut down. She laughed. It was so trivial! YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are all blocked. The tens of thousands of government agents monitoring the internet at the ministry of information are working overtime. Western officials in Beijing told me they used to laugh at the notion of China reining in the internet — these guys actually think they can control the web, ha! — but are not laughing as much any more.

Their comment was made before Google said it had had enough. Thanks to China Mobile, it was on the Chongqing-Chengdu express that I read the Google announcement that it will cease cooperating with Chinese censorship of Google.cn and might withdraw from China. So, I thought, the behemoth of global connectedness and the behemoth of global growth confront each other.

Nobody here can be surprised that China has been trying to hack into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, among other cyberattacks. That’s consistent with the prevailing mood. Google is on the money when it says China is a great nation behind much of the world’s growth today but that its actions go “to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.”

I don’t think China can forever ride globalisation, its development stallion, and deny its very essence: open systems. My sense is the Chinese government is selling itself short. Like the man who taps phones for a living and comes to believe phone tappers are everywhere, it has elevated suspicion to an obsession even as success and stability have brought a significant buy-in. Google’s ‘Basta!’ is a welcome provocation to a critical debate.

News of Google’s decision was, of course, buried. One news portal belonging to Phoenix TV carried an item beneath the games section saying Google was leaving because it found the local market too confusing and had poor leadership.

But one blogger, Xu Caixing, cut through such obfuscation, saying the issue was “censorship and human rights.” He concluded: “Who is afraid? What are they afraid of?”
Those are good questions. Discussions between Google and the Chinese government will fail if they do not answer them.

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