Censor? I barely know her!

"Oh my God! Google is threatening to pull out of China!"
If you haven't heard, see http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/new-approach-to-china.html

I know I'm late to the party on this one, but after reading article after article discussing this news, nobody has really attempted to connect the dots. Sure, there has already been a raucous online circlejerk about how great Google is to stand up to the Chinese government on human rights. Cries of "Do no evil!" erupted in unison as forums were flooded with fanboy fluid. (If wading around in these oubursts, it is advised to use a virus scanner to prevent contracting an STI.)

In 2006, when Google first ventured into the Chinese market, they knew exactly what they were getting themselves into, and by announcing that they would comply with Chinese law and censor their search results, they were duly criticized by netizens for violating their own inspiring - and successful - "Do no evil" policy. Why is it that four years later a sudden change of heart accompanied by an equally surprising ultimatum to the Chinese government (let us provide uncensored results, or we leave) is heralded as anything but disingenuous?

Google came here looking to tap into the 340-million-and-growing group of Chinese with Internet access. It's the same reason why anyone would want to set up shop here: there are a billion people and trillions of RMB flying around between them, waiting to be netted. By either measure, it's simply the largest market in the world. Naturally, there are a multitude of companies competing for their slice of this gigantic (and likely corn-flavored, with traces of melamine) pie. One such competitor is Baidu, the Chinese-owned web giant with more than 60% of the search engine market. In contrast, Google enjoys about 30% market share, which - one should note - is still a ton of people.

So what would force an innovative and financially secure web titan to make such a drastic threat? A hint: certainly not the plight of a few human rights activists that happen to use GMail. To Google's credit, they at least strive to defend their users' privacy, whereas Yahoo has been eager to snitch to the Chinese authorities, resulting in the imprisonment of at least three citizens. As for Microsoft, they were certainly quick to criticize Google's announcement, citing the same complicit "we're just abiding by the law" sentiment. Opportunistic philanthropist Bill Gates dismissed China's web censorship as "very limited" and "easy to go around" (which might have been the case in 2008 when the Great Firewall was temporarily switched off to show visiting Westerners that China isn't the Big Bad Censor that foreign media "unfairly" paints it as). Sitting here in China 2010, I can affirm that to an average user, the GFW is in fact "very comprehensive" and "tenaciously annoying to circumvent." But why rock the boat when Microsoft has it's new search engine ready to fill Google's void, right? (It's too bad "Bing" was doomed here before it ever began: the name [bìng, 病] means "disease.") Again though, these aren't new questions at all - prior to entering China, Google would have had time to digest this prescient piece from 2005 on the moral dilemma technology firms face in the PRC.

One of many good quotes from that above article: "Rather than accept everything the Chinese authorities says, the big players could find a common position saying they will stick to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and their own values," said Julien Pain, head of the Internet Freedom desk for Reporters Without Borders.

The only moral thing Google has done is realized and admitted it was being.. amoral. But that's a good first step!

Now, to the heart of the issue: China. You can think of China as a foxy young girl who knows she's smokin' hot. She's happy to hang out at the club and lure people over to buy her drinks, and even though she'd chat and humor him a bit just to keep him talking and buying drinks, she'd never dream of putting out. Instead, once her suitor had fulfilled his usefulness or she became bored, she'd feign indignation, throw a fit, and then freeze him out. Yes, in spite of her charm and confidence in her looks, there's something bothering her on the inside: even though others compliment her beauty and tell her she's special, she looks over to the VIP table and her gut sinks. Why don't those other people accept her? That's all she wants!

Those racists.

So, who are these frustrated chumps who get taken advantage of? Pretty much anybody wishing to do business with China. Let's look at Microsoft, since we're talking about technology. In case you haven't heard, Microsoft has this computer operating system, "Windows." Microsoft sees China at the bar dressed in a slick silk dress, her mysterious dark eyes drawing him in. He freezes for a bit in that awkward nerd-receiving-attention-from-a-woman way, nervously checks his watch, and tells himself "get your shit together Microsoft, you can do this!" He walks over and introduces himself. Isn't he going to buy her a drink first? Oh, haha, yea.. that's protocol, right? How silly of him. He tells her about the binary clock he built, the Star Trek convention he organized, she smiles and nods, he orders more drinks. Finally, he mentions this "Windows" thing and she perks up. All of these people pay that much money for Windows? Yeah, pretty cool, right? Oh, you're SO smart! She leans in and touches his arm with her hand. He has to excuse himself to the restroom for a moment and fix his erection. After coming back out, China seems a little doubtful. "But I worry, is this Windows thing secure?" Of course! Look, I'll show you! (Please sleep with me, I don't want to die a virgin!) Wow, too cool, Microsoft! You're like my best friend ever! Got to go now, see you later. *wink* By the way, you don't mind if I show this to some of my friends, right?

There are a few interesting results from this little story that relate to the main topic (Google and China, in case you've forgotten - I know I almost did after that steamy fan-fiction):
  1. For many years, many Chinese business models have relied on the above "sucker" method. Foreign companies attracted by China's dirt-cheap labor costs and lax regulations line up to take advantage of outsourcing their manufacturing work to maximize profits. Within a short time, the same companies notice profits are falling because the market is flooded with cheap imitations of their product. Even if you cease to do business with that manufacturer, the damage is irreversible - nothing will stop the copies and the Chinese goverment (although having attended conventions, signed treaties, and legislated laws to declare copyright and protect intellectual property) won't let you sue the Chinese-owned company for damages. Frankly, my dear, they don't give a damn. Neither do the Chinese citizens (and many others around the world) who enjoy the same dirt-cheap prices on goods such as electronics, movies, and uppity brand-name handbags. This is exactly why Microsoft won't see a red cent from the Chinese for their software: why pay a premium for the legitimate version when the copy does the exact same thing for cheaper?

    Simply, there is a culture of copying here. From fake brands to diplomas, it's prevalent and thus accepted. The idea of the "Chinese knock-off" is similarly widespread in Western societies, but I don't know how many people are aware of this extending to the Web. Did you look at that Baidu link? Their webpage design looks awfully familiar. But this is it: the Chinese excel at taking something built by Westerners - already tried and true - and Chinafying (Chinkify, if you need a pejorative) it for their local tastes and market. Examples aplenty here: http://www.randomwire.com/chinese-web-20-clones. As an outsider, it is nearly impossible to compete with these "blessed from above" businesses since they are run by Chinese nationals and thus bring money into the country while being much easier to control.

  2. "Hacked By Chinese!" Many attacks on computer networks are said to originate from China, and accordingly, the Western media often points fingers this way. I don't deny the hacking claims, but remember that when you're counting hacking attempts, executions, or any other statistic, one in five people on this planet reside in China. By counting raw numbers, there is an extreme bias that should be corrected with the words "per capita." It's no small minority: what's good for China is good for roughly 20% of the people alive today.

    Regarding the computer hacking, though: the Chinese military (The People's Liberation Army, or PLA) is certainly invested in recruiting and developing a talented cyber-army. Coupled with its past expertise at reverse-engineering electronics, software is a natural second talent to hone. Especially considering that the PLA's main rival, the United States, is heavily reliant on technology to conduct combat (minimizing American casualties and incidentially taking collateral damage to new levels), a Chinese upper hand in the electronic warfare theatre would be potentially crippling. It's easily the one place to invest time and money because instead of expensive missiles or gear, all you need is a computer and one ambassador skilled in denial.

    Of course, while there is "civilian" hacking everywhere in the world, they can't always take the blame. As if the scale of the coordinated attacks on Google and (allegedly) 30+ other technology companies wasn't questionable, one of the motives - information on Chinese dissidents - leaves little doubt that the government would be quite interested in the spoils from these attacks. This wouldn't be the first wide-scale attempt at infiltrating and monitoring dissidents - see an earlier operation named GhostNet which targeted offices of the exiled Dalai Lama as well as other foreign embassies.

    The other primary objective of these attacks was source code - the programming that instructs computers what to compute. It's the same thing that the Chinese asked for from Microsoft: the source code to Windows; and given what little has surfaced in regard to the actual attacks, that access to the Windows source code could possibly be why the hackers were able to break in with a never-before-seen vulnerability. Really, though, the "how" isn't of much concern to the rest of the world, but the "why" certainly is. If any government - whether via its military, contractors, or plain old nationalists - is breaking into your company for the purpose of stealing its intellectual crown jewels.. if the very country you operate in and rely on to enforce the rules is actively sabotaging you.. it's time to get the fuck out.
It's no different from the industrial espionage that plagued the manufacturers prior. How can any company, even as intelligent, resourceful, and admired as Google is, fight off the 800-pound Panda in the room? Simple: it can't. If there were one quote most fitting for these times (here and abroad) I offer you this from the Greek statesman Solon:

"Laws are like spiders' webs: if some light or powerless thing falls into them, it is caught, but a bigger one can break through and get away."

From an outsiders perspective, there appear to have been many intentional attempts to disrupt Google's services, of course to the benefit of mainland competitors. First, some of them are blocked outright, such as YouTube and Blogger. Second, others are crippled - the Image Search is near-useless because thumbnails often don't appear; the caching feature was also blocked because it could be used to view blocked pages; and further, Google was told to remove its Auto-suggest feature (which shows what others are commonly searching for) because it was pointing to pornography. The search engine was attacked by the state-run CCTV network: http://www.chinasmack.com/more/cctv-attacks-google-porn-links-fake-interview-exposed. Humorously, it was quickly discovered that the interviewee, Gao Ye, who condemned Internet pornography in the broadcast after his schoolmate was apparently traumatized by it, was not actually a student, but a shill employed by CCTV. Lastly, the Web Search and GMail both have been subject to the whimsical nature of the censors, both having disappeared without warning during my time here.

So, backed into a corner, Google did the only thing it could do: slap China in her most sensitive spot, the face, and walk away. In China and other Asian cultures, the concept of "losing face" is a troubling one. Essentially, face is lost when there is discord between the conduct of two parties due to perceived status. In a word, "honor" or "respect." Since that's all a bit abstract, the easiest way to remember the idea is: if you're putting someone in a stressful or awkward situation, they're losing face. It doesn't have to be as awkward as publishing bachelor party photos on the Internet - it could be as innocuous as someone offering you a business card with two hands and you accepting it with one. Or perhaps more obviously, informing the entire world that operating your business in China is not even worth the trouble.

Poor girl, shunned from that VIP table again.

By posturing its decision as a dilemma for the PRC to make the final call on, Google can gain face by appearing to stand up against censorship and the oppression of political dissidents. There is not a chance in hell that the Party would allow Google to operate uncensored - both of them know that. It would undermine everything: the state-run media, by allowing alternative viewpoints to enter mainstream discussion; the Golden Shield Project and Great Firewall, by contradicting its need to protect netizens from potentially "harmful" information; it would provide these users a place to publish their unfiltered thoughts and not have them torn down minutes later; and it would expose documentation of decades of violent suppression. It would be so radical, the disruption is unthinkable.

Here's the subtle bit of strategy that I haven't seen anyone else pick up on. When the PRC announced its home-made Green Dam Youth Escort Web-filtering software would be mandatory on new PCs "to build a green, healthy, and harmonious online environment, and to avoid the effects on and the poisoning of our youth's minds by harmful information on the Internet," there was significant and unusual pressure from Chinese netizens and the international community condemning the plan - so much that the decree was dropped, and the software is now voluntary. Although the software promised to protect children from pornography by detecting inappropriate words and even skin-tones in pictures, analysis of the software later revealed that 15% of the blocked content was pornography-related, while the other 85% was political.

The savvy online generation knows full-well of China's attempts to control the flow of information, which is why they mocked the Green Dam Youth Escort by personifying the software as a little girl wearing the word "morals" on her sleeve and carrying a paintbrush to cover up anything objectionable. The act of the government blocking a site or censoring a blog or forum post is common, and colloquially referred to as "harmonizing" it - a play on the idea that neutralizing disruptive information will meet Hu Jintao's vision of a Harmonious Society. Once the slang "harmonize" was barred from use on some forums, a homophone appeared: "river crab." This idea is further abstracted by some as simply "aquatic product." All of it is evidence to the same enduring idea that Big Brother is watching closely over all discourse. And with enough pressure, the PRC didn't want to lose face by looking more like the Thought Police. They backed down!

Google could be aiming for this kind of sympathetic response to pressure the government. They have plenty of international support from human rights organizations, corporations with similar interests in China, and many democratic trade partners, not to mention their loyal users inside of China. Again, there won't be any sweeping reform of censorship, but perhaps Google can hope to strike some sort of deal to stay here. Is it so wise to rush back into such an abusive relationship? I don't know. What possible kind of agreement could be enforced so that Google doesn't end up making the same mistake twice?

If it is all just for show and Google packs up tomorrow, there will be an ominous hole - a constant reminder to Chinese netizens and foreign companies alike that maybe something isn't quite right about China if a smart, capable, and respected company runs away repenting: "Do no evil! Do no evil!"


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