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Google tests loyalties of China's wired generation

January 24, 2010

By Chris Buckley
January 21, 2010

BEIJING -- When Google threw down the gauntlet to
China's Internet censors, it also challenged the
loyalties of the nation's wired generation.

These tech-savvy Chinese in their 20s and 30s
grew up in far greater affluence and openness
than their parents. Many are pulled between
patriotic pride and a yearning for more say over
their own lives, even if they accept Communist Party control.

The Google dispute may become a telling test of
how they balance loyalties to their country with
their desire for unfettered expression and access
to information, and this response could shape how Beijing handles the dispute.

"The special feature of the Internet is that
companies like Google see that expanding their
profits is tied to expanding their freedom," said
Chen Yongmiao, a Chinese activist whose own
website has been restricted by authorities.

"It's a test. How much you support Google in
China shows how much you want more freedom in
China, even if you know Google is ultimately about profits."

The world's biggest search engine said last week
it could pull back from China and shut its
Chinese website over complaints of hacking and censorship.

Chinese officials have avoided directly taking on
Google, but made plain they expect Internet
companies in the country to enforce the laws, including censorship.

The center of the resulting tug-of-war in
attitudes is the Zhongguancun area in northwest
Beijing, an area dense with university campuses,
malls of high-tech goods and computer labs, and
also home to Google's China headquarters.

Students, job-seekers and high-tech professionals
in Zhongguancun saw Google's stance through a
prism of admiration and wariness that has echoed in online forums.

"I think it's admirable for a company to
sacrifice profits for the sake of an idea," said
Liu Wei, a 29-year-old accountant with heavy
Clark Kent-style spectacles and neatly cropped hair.

"Why can't we criticize our own government if we
want to? Why can't we choose what we read on the Internet?"

"That's because China's different!" interrupted
his girlfriend Sun Jingying, a slight 26-year-old
studying to become a chartered accountant.

"There are some things about this country we just
have to accept," she added, nonetheless stressing
she would be sad if Google quit China. "I'd love to work for them," she said.

The Obama administration has shown it wants to
court this emerging generation of connected
Chinese. China's latest survey of Internet use
found 60.4 percent of the nation's online
population of 384 million was aged 10 to 29.

During his visit to China last November,
President Barack Obama used a web-cast meeting
with Chinese youth to amplify that message,
telling them he was a "big supporter of not
restricting Internet use." U.S. Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton is set to take on China and
other authoritarian governments over Internet
restrictions in a speech on Thursday.

Despite censorship, China's Internet can be a
potent public forum, with bloggers and amorphous
online groups hectoring the government over pollution and corruption.

Last year, the government abruptly abandoned a
plan to force all new personal computers to come
with a copy of "Green Dam" Internet-filtering
software that had been derided by online critics as intrusive and ineffective.

But China's youth can also bristle at what they
see as Western bullying. The ruling Communist
Party could seek to channel that volatile
sentiment to blunt foreign pressure over control of the Internet.

"There are some who feel increasingly restricted
and unfree, the ones who tend to support Google.
But there are also many who have been heavily
shaped by the official media and see the U.S.
government behind Google's actions," Li Yonggang,
an expert on society and the Internet at Nanjing
University in east China, said of the nation's "post-80" generation.

"If this becomes a more open fight between the
Chinese and U.S. governments, this nationalism
could come to dominate if the government turns harder line."


Chengfu Street in Zhongguancun, where Google has
its China headquarters, is testament to the country's economic upheaval.

A little over a decade ago, this was a gritty
neighborhood of low brick homes and cheap restaurants near retreating farmland.

Now it bristles with high-tech offices and cafes
and restaurants catering to office workers and
students. Google's office sits in steel and glass
towers that also house a Deutsche Bank office, a
gym and "Wall Street English" classrooms.

The students on nearby campuses who fill many
high-tech jobs in this area, however, are also
products of an education that prizes pride in the
nation's achievements, obedience to the Communist
Party, and vigilance against foreign pressure.

Many of them had scant understanding that Google
has said China was the source of sophisticated
hacking -- China's state-run media has reported
little on that complaint -- and others scoffed
that Google would leave the country over the issue.

"If they can't handle hackers and censorship,
that's their own problem," said one Chinese
computer hardware technician heading for a gym
workout near the Google office. He gave his English name, Derek Huang.

"Each country has its own Internet restrictions,
so it's natural for us to have our own, and if we
want to change them, that's our own business," he said.

Recent opinion surveys show that while Chinese in
their 20s and 30s are more critical of their
government than older cohorts and want more
freedom, they tend to be strongly patriotic and
cautious about political change. The United
States attracts both admiration and disdain.

The Internet was crucial in spreading Chinese
anger about Western protests over Tibet before
the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. In past years,
too, the Internet has been a conduit of nationalist Chinese ire over Japan.

"Google was just acting out of commercial
interests," said Su Xin, a 25-year-old graduate
student of aeronautic engineering. "I think we've
got to accept some restrictions for the sake of stability."

But even some students who said they had little
interest in politics said they felt jolted by the
idea that Google could quit China over censorship complaints.

"If it leaves, I'll feel it's a big loss," said
Guo Xin, a 19-year-old student with a spike of
hair dyed neon-orange. He said he used the
Internet, and Google, to hunt down information about online games and movies.

"It's not good restricting us too much. It cuts
us off from the information you need in modern life," he said.

(Editing by Megan Goldin)
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