Better in than out

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 March, 2010, 12:00am

Google's decision to close down its internet search service on the mainland has drawn much international attention, with many praising the company for having the courage to stand up to Beijing.

The New York Times called it a 'principled and brave move, a belated acknowledgment that internet companies cannot enable a government's censorship without becoming a de facto accomplice to repression'. And Chris Smith, a US Republican congressman, described it as 'a shot heard around the world'.

Beijing, of course, played down the development, calling it merely 'an individual act of a business company' and added, 'Whether to leave or to stay, it's Google's call.'

Google's action gave a great many people unhappy with the Chinese government a sense of satisfaction. Finally, someone has told Beijing off, regardless of the consequences.

That sentiment is understandable because there is a great deal of unhappiness with China around the world. It has defiantly disregarded what many regard as international norms, disbarring human rights lawyers, throwing into prison respected intellectuals who call for democracy, and dealing with a heavy hand with the country's main ethnic minorities, the Tibetans and the Uygurs.

Despite this, China's breakneck economic, political and military growth has governments, not to say companies, fearful of offending this new global power.

So Google's action seems like a well-deserved slap in the face for China. But although it may be emotionally satisfying, one must still look at the consequences. After all, what is it that has changed since 2006, when Google first entered the mainland, and today, when it has decided to leave? Four years ago, Google concluded that its presence on the mainland would be positive even if it had to abide by Chinese censorship rules.

'In a situation where there are only imperfect options, we think we have made a reasonable choice,' Google said four years ago. 'The internet is transforming China for the better. And the weight of the evidence suggests that the internet is accelerating and deepening these positive trends, even in an imperfect environment.'

There is no suggestion that this situation has changed. And when David Drummond, senior vice-president and Google's chief legal officer, announced on January 12 that Google was 'no longer willing to continue censoring our search results on', he provided no new information to justify this new attitude.

In fact, the internet has continued to grow on the mainland over the past four years, and it is no doubt continuing to transform the nation for the better. In 2006, Google estimated that there were 'more than 105 million internet users in China' and that the number would grow to 250 million by 2010. In reality, growth has been so rapid that there are already 384 million internet users and the number is expected to exceed 500 million in three years.

If 100 million internet users was a good reason for Google to be on the mainland in 2006, surely tripling or even quintupling that number should make it even more important.

Drummond cited cyber attacks 'originating from China' that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google, and the hacking of e-mail accounts of human rights activists.

Surely this is not a problem beyond Google's ability to manage. Besides, the presence of a search engine on the mainland does not seem relevant to these issues. As Google has said, there are only imperfect options. But if it was right in 2006 for Google to be on the mainland despite censorship, it is right today, and it would be right next year and the year after that.

On the day Google's decision to leave was announced, people went to its headquarters in Beijing to say goodbye. One note reportedly said: 'In Google we trust. See you on the other side.'

If, as China says, it is Google's call to leave or to stay, Google should reconsider the situation and, hopefully, return to the mainland where, as it said in 2006, it can 'accomplish more for Chinese citizens' access to information than the alternative'.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator