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Free speech and internet are key to China’s reform, says Google’s Eric Schmidt

The world’s No 2 economy will stall unless its people can speak freely, Eric Schmidt says

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 3:18pm

Google chairman Eric Schmidt on Monday urged Beijing to allow its people to think and speak freely if the world’s No 2 economy wants to grow further.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the search engine giant's chief spoke of his concern at the mainland’s recent “500 reposts” rule designed to tighten the government’s control of the Internet.

Schmidt, who is visiting Hong Kong as part of a partnership program with the Chinese University of Hong Kong to help grow young entrepreneurs in the city, told the Post that freedom of speech will help the mainland to avoid falling into the so-called “middle-income trap”.

“Google believes very strongly in a free internet. The mainland just passed the law about the 500-reposts thing. Then you will definitely think about it before you write. It’s a problem, (it) means your voice is not fully heard,” said Schmidt.

“My opinion is China wants to avoid the middle-income trap and in order to avoid that, they have to develop the openness, free speech, and the reason is in order to get there, you should have the debates about everything,” he added.

In his latest speech last week about the mainland’s economic growth, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he was confident that China would see healthy economic growth and would not fall into a middle-income trap, according to the official Xinhua news agency. The middle-income trap often happens when a country moves from low income to middle income, but find it more difficult to grow further to reach the high-income rank. This can be a stage where social problems occur. South Africa and Brazil are two often cited examples for this typical economic development trap.

“I have a strong opinion and my opinion is there should be freedom of speech to pursue one’s goals for ideas. Our position hasn’t changed,” said Schmidt, adding that restrictions on mainland Internet access, which makes Google’s search and email services unstable, would also hurt the mainland’s academic research.

The ‘one child’ policy is a terrible mistake. We want more Chinese people not fewer

“I will also observe that if you are here in Hong Kong, and the Chinese government decides to change that, you will miss it. It’s important to stay right upfront. It’s an important aspect for real culture (in Hong Kong),” said Schmidt, referring the importance of the freedom of speech and Internet for both Hong Kong and the mainland.

In early September, Beijing announced that any libellous online post that is reposted more than 500 times or viewed more than 5,000 times could land its author in jail for up to three years. It is the mainland’s first judicial interpretation to control rumours on the Internet. Many political analysts view the legal move as the latest efforts by the Communist Party to ramp up its campaign to rein in the Internet following President Xi’s recent call to “seize the ground of new media”.

Schmidt, who served as Google’s chief executive for about a decade until 2011 when he was named chairman of the technology giant, said China was facing three serious problems and Beijing must act quickly to for sustainable growth.

“The first problem you have is a demographic one - not enough young people and too many old people. The ‘one child’ policy is a terrible mistake. We want more Chinese people not fewer. You need to stop it now. You should have stopped it 10 years ago,” said Schmidt. “In 20 years, the demographic (problem) in China will be more terrible – a very large number of old people, no social security, no good healthcare. You need more young people.”

Schmidt noted the other two problems for the mainland’s economic growth were globalization and automation as other Asian countries including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia move to replace China’s role as the world’s factory over the next 10 to 20 years.

“The third problem is automation. More and more factories will have fewer and fewer people as robots are going to be get smarter. Robots can work 24 hours a day and you can’t do that to human,” he said.

“My simple answer is you (China) have to get all the three things done and that is a very hard challenge,” said Schmidt, adding that Beijing may copy the Hong Kong free trade model it has adopted in Shanghai - where a free-trade zone was launched in October - to other mainland cities. However, policy-making and implementations often take a long time on the mainland, he noted.

“My first question about the free-trade zone (in Shanghai) is if the Internet is open there. The principle is you need to create the innovation space. Hong Kong is the innovation space for the mainland. Mainland can study what Hong Kong does and see how it works but these things in China take time,” he said.




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I have a strong opinion that Mr Schmidt might advise the US instead of China. The US is bankrupt and China is holding its bonds. It appears to me that if he has any wisdom to impart, he should direct it to the US.
But the US already has free speech and a free internet. His advice is for the country that doesn't have those things yet...for no good reason as far as I can tell. I mean really, what constructive purpose does the GFW and internet censorship serve, exactly? You should really spend more time thinking about what was being said, and less time worrying about who was saying it.
Yep. All that free speech via Google is reported to the US Govt. without people's knowledge. No wonder he advocates it for China.
Even if that was the point, it would still be a huge improvement on what China currently has. Of course, that's not the point, but you seem simply too indoctrinated to be able to comprehend it.
Without free thinking, there is no innovation, but only copying - not leader but follower.
Eric is an IT CEO hailing from a country of 300M+, supposedly run by a president mediated by a congress and a senate, but based on the mandate of (a) War-and-Offence, (b) Oil (c) Pharmaceutical Industries, and (d) the top 1% of salary-paying folks, in that very order, is overreaching to advise China how to manage its 1.3 Billion?
Why do you think the Chinese makes the US businesses somersault trice before you get admitted?
China is a lost cause when it comes to free speech in the foreseeable future. Despite initial optimism, everything Xi has done in terms of cracking down on speech suggests he's more backward than Hu ever was. There will be 9 more years of stagnation on the speech front in China, if not outright backsliding.
I'm more interested in Schmidt's reference to HK. In some sense, PRC folks never had free speech, so they'll never miss it. But HKers do know it, and although they may not fully appreciate it now, they will really miss it if it's gone. That may be a small aspect of the issues coming to a head in 2017, but it will certainly become more topical as 2047 approaches.
It's not exclusive, this interview, is it? I read on HKEJ that he had an interview with them too...
Fellow SCMP readers, I would not listen to anything Google has to say when it comes to China. I lived through their initial Google launch in China - where according to company leaders they were going to have 80% of China's search market within 5-years. Eight years on, they had less then 15%… But rather than admitting defeat and exiting the market - they created a big ho-ha about freedom of speech as their reasoning behind pulling out of China. There is nothing wrong with failure, covering it up however is another story…
I am assuming Mr. Schmidt was in China applying for a teaching position as "How to insult your prospective customers" expert?



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