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China's Google Syndrome

March 29, 2010

by Libby Liu
President of Radio Free Asia
March 26, 2010

Online giant's retreat puts spotlight on Internet freedoms

What an amazing week. It started with Google on Monday deciding to reroute
its Chinese users to its unfiltered Hong Kong-based search engine. But it
didn't end there. What Chinese authorities hoped would be a blip that would
neatly be resolved instead has ballooned into a much bigger drama. Google's
decision - the shot heard 'round the world - threw a spotlight on other
online Western companies operating in The People's Republic of China under
authorities' tight controls. By Wednesday, GoDaddy stopped registering
domain names with Chinese servers and it remains to be seen if other
companies follow Google's lead.

Beijing has been quick to react, first accusing Google of acting politically
and now blocking search results from its Hong Kong-based search engines.
Chinese partners already are backing out of previous deals with Google. The
retreat also has offered a peek inside the regime's information control
apparatus during times of crisis. Chinese domestic news Web site editors
were handed a set of instructions on reporting on the incident, explaining
that all content about Google must originate from the central government's
main media Web site without any changes, including to the wording of the
articles' titles. According to the rules, discussion sessions on any media
blogs are forbidden, as is content from any outside or foreign news source.

The events also throw a spotlight on China's draconian restrictions of the
Internet and its use of the far-reaching medium to enforce its perpetual
prohibition of free speech and the unfettered exchange of ideas.

With about 350 million Chinese people online, China has the most Internet
users of any country. But China also maintains the world's most
comprehensive online censorship program. Service providers operating in
China filter searches, block Web sites, delete objectionable content, and
monitor e-mail traffic. Despite pledges for more openness since the Beijing
Olympics in 2008, China's controls of online freedom have only become
tighter. To access Web sites, such as Radio Free Asia's, China's netizens
are forced to use proxy servers and special software to navigate
Chinese-restricted cyberspace. Last year, in the weeks leading up to the
20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown, Google's
and Yahoo!'s search engines were filtered and online social networking sites
such as Twitter and Facebook were shut down. Since last summer's ethnic
unrest in Urumqi, bloggers have described the ongoing cyber blackout of
China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as an "Internet prison."

Chinese authorities also go after bloggers when they refuse to walk the
party line or post information deemed sensitive. Chinese blogger Huang Qi is
serving a prison sentence of three years since being convicted last November
for his role in helping the victims' families of the devastating Sichuan
earthquake in May 2008. At present, an estimated 73 netizens and bloggers in
China are behind bars.

The deep irony is how authorities use the Internet -- with its enormous
potential to promote discussion and the free exchange of ideas -- as a means
to silence and intimidate. It seems hardly imaginable that the Internet
could be used as a tool of suppression. But so successful is China's model
that other authoritarian governments strive to emulate it.

Google's move brings attention to this reality. China's incredible growth
over the last several decades as a global economic powerhouse has made it
easier to overlook its sluggish progress in improving free speech and media
freedoms. In refusing to back down, China risks making the very subject of
cyberspace a "special topic" that is conspicuously avoided like Tibet and

But who would have known that Google would have led the charge to bring
these events about? Least of all, would anyone expect that a commercial
company that risks losing out on a vast market would put human rights ahead
of profits. That is, until now.
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