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.
“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.