Will Google’s exit mean alienation for China’s Web users?

By David Bandurski — While the possible exit of the search engine giant Google from China’s market received prominent coverage in China’s newspapers yesterday, it remains to be seen how far China’s propaganda leaders will stomach discussion of the broader significance of this story. There are many sensitive issues and emotions involved, and the CCP is no doubt intent on ensuring this does not spiral into a strident contest over government Internet controls.

For now at least, there have been some interesting remarks on the Google story in China’s media.

Once again we turn to yesterday’s edition of Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, where an opinion piece by Liu Hongbo (刘洪波), a regular columnist for Changjiang Daily (长江日报), voiced concern over the impact of Google’s possible exit — and what it might represent for the long-term development of China’s Internet as an industry, social tool and vibrant cultural space.



[ABOVE: Screenshot of coverage at the Southern Metropolis Daily website yesterday of Chinese laying flowers outside Google headquarters in Beijing.]

Liu Hongbo argued in so many words that strict government controls on the Internet could have a devastating impact on China’s international social life.

A complete translation of the editorial follows:

In Suspense About the Fate of Google in China
By Liu Hongbo (刘洪波)
Southern Metropolis Daily
January 14, 2010, A31

When domestic media saw this news [about Google] they were not shocked, only disappointed. They were not shocked because rumors had already been circulating. The announcement on Google’s corporate blog was merely confirmation. Google’s fate in China is still not sealed, but the likelihood of its closure is already there, and I cannot imagine the prospect of life online after Google.

Of course we can still use Baidu. And it’s true that Google in China (Google.cn) was never a match for Baidu in terms of market share. But even if just for the sake of preserving normal market competition in China, Google should still exist.

Even if we imagine Google holding an even smaller market share, what would that really matter? If it were simply an issue of ensuring enough competitors in China’s search engine market, it might suffice, in the absence of Google, to have a new online search provider take its place. But what impact might the departure of the world’s biggest Internet service provider have on China’s Internet?

Whether we’re talking about MSN or Google, these are not just services but forms of culture. They represent the online lives of many people, and they have helped to build many people’s conceptions about the Web. Their existence in China does not just serve to provide competition for Chinese players. As important Internet brands, they demonstrate the Chinese Internet’s connectedness to the global Internet. If Google’s departure does come to pass, this would mean MSN is the only major international Internet service provider still operating on Chinese soil.

China is in the midst of becoming a “major power” (大国). We are in the midst of the online age. And the world’s biggest Internet service provider withdraws from China. If a major manufacturing enterprise of the same caliber were to withdraw entirely from China, I imagine that would cause us to reflect with some urgency on our development environment. So will the closure of Google in China urge us in the same way to consider what sort of environment we are providing for Internet development?

The uncertainty of Google’s fate in China is something we can look at in two ways. First of all, the existence or absence in a given place of products or services that symbolize modern life is one way we can judge the level of openness there. In commemorating 30 years of reform in China, for example, people might rejoice at Coca Cola’s entry into China. Secondly, there is the reverse pressure (反向压力) exerted by the bargaining position and “significance index” (意义指数) of major international enterprises — the sorts of capital forces that are often the object of attack by the left end of the political spectrum in the West.

Google China has said it is considering shutting down, but still hopes to negotiate with those who control China’s Internet (中国互联网管理者). This can be read as a throwing down of the mantle, or as an amorous advance. People deal with threats and flirtation in different ways, naturally, and with varying degrees of urgency. But the threat and the come on are in fact the same thing, the only difference abiding perhaps in the reading of the act as either solicitous or malicious. A challenge that resolves in agreement can be read as amorous. An advance that is disagreeable may be perceived as a threat.

While unhappy all along with China’s Internet environment, Google still made allowances. So perhaps in saying it is considering closing up shop, we can read a measure of hope that concessions might be made. But the situation is such now that those who control the Internet and those who serve it must seriously talk turkey. If the degree of openness and tolerance cannot be readjusted, then management powers [i.e. the government] might face an uneasy situation, and the use of the Internet by society might be affected.

If Google exits China, this will be a setback for Google’s business. It will also be a setback for the development of the Internet in China. This would mean not just the withdrawal of capital but the withdrawal of a brand, the withdrawal of a culture. This would impact not only people’s use of the Internet but would also mean, taking a longer view, their alienation from the mainstream international culture of the Internet.

The Web has already become a form of basic and shared human life. This goes without saying. The Internet is still in a stage of rapid development, and new types of service are emerging all the time. The Internet has freed us from geographical restrictions on information . . . and has flattened the world. And still, controls [on the Internet] may in the end mean “the world is not flat.” This is the reason why we are still unable to fully understand the Internet. Language is not the only obstacle to information access. Imagine if Chinese websites too become inaccessible.

The saga of the Google search engine is already more than a decade long. In recent years we have seen Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other Internet services emerge. But we have no way of directly accessing these new “international communities” (国际社区). These services have their substitutes, of course. But there is something farcical and cheap in the Internet age about this “substitute provision” of services isolated from the [global] mainstream.

How do we connect with the Web, enter the Internet age and “gear up with international standards”? These are very real questions.

[Posted by David Bandurski, January 15, 2010, 2:33am HK]

2 Comments to “Will Google’s exit mean alienation for China’s Web users?”

  1. [...] editorial from a Chinese newspaper and its English translation have been e-mailed around. The view represents a sophisticated argument of what the search company [...]

  2. [...] If Google exits China, this will be a setback for Google’s business. It will also be a setback for the development of the Internet in China. This would mean not just the withdrawal of capital but the withdrawal of a brand, the withdrawal of a culture. This would impact not only people’s use of the Internet but would also mean, taking a longer view, their alienation from the mainstream international culture of the Internet. (h/t China Media Project) [...]

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