Google Whacked

There’s a myth that China needs saving from evil dictators, or that Chinese people need to be somehow civilized.  That’s simply not true.  The truth is that there’s little in the way of mass oppression as there once was, and most of the so-called political maneuvers are more than likely to be economically motivated than political – so much so that that when the Chinese government blocked the movie portal IMDB in China, I instantly commented that there must be a Chinese–backed version of the site to open in mainland China soon.

I don’t think that western countries have the best way of doing things, (in much the same way that I don’t think the Chinese way is the best way) as anyone who has been through an election year in the UK can testify.  No, it’s just that when I see a good idea rejected for no good reason, I don’t really see any reason to waste time, energy and money on getting the idea accepted.  I don’t think, for example that IMDB should be blocked in mainland China, I don’t think that “because of the Korean War” is a good excuse to give to me when I ask why can’t I exchange Won in Beijing and I don’t think that the answer to winter heating is to sling another block of coal on the Aga.

All of these things and more hurt China and Chinese people, and they hurt China in the worst possible way, they are rules enforced for the good of the minority that will benefit only in the short term.  The foreigners sure as hell aren’t going to hang around if Beijing air starts to melt their fillings, but thanks to the shortsighted government policies, Chinese people have little choice but settle back in with a bottle of Tsigntao to watch The Happy Show while their face melts.  Sure, the laowai are going to uproot their families and they may never eat gong bao chicken ever again, but then again, who wants to drink milk that could land you in the emergency room?

The one reason why I like the Internet is that it’s a major pain in the ass for the Chinese government.  The Internet is a problem, not only because it allows the free flow of ideas, but because it allows people to easily compare their living standards.  At one time in China it was easy to tell people that they were doing good work and that they were beating the evil Americans when it comes to wheat production.  Nowadays, it’s not so easy.  The Internet is open and accessible to everyone.  Peer review has never been so easy – anyone can look at it, and anyone can poke holes in it, sniff it, lick and get up close and personal to it.  The only problem is that the Chinese are not really used to people being able to look at it and poke holes in it.  Only last week a large fraud was discovered by an obscure science journal in papers that were authored by Chinese scientists.  Acta Crystollographica Section E found that all that Chinese researchers had done was to alter certain, existing crystal structures by one or two atoms with the intention of making the structure seem entirely new.  The discovery led to the withdrawal of the papers by the two groups that submitted them in the first place – a total of 70 between them.

The big money in China these days is to be made in the online sector – after all, it’s the largest in the world.  The problem is, there isn’t one large Chinese dotcom that isn’t a copy of an existing western site – Facebook has Kaixin, Flickr has Yupoo, Google has Baidu and Youtube has Youku.  The sad truth is that the Chinese can’t do much on their own.  They can’t even make a good movie with a panda in it.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the Chinese cyberspace.  Chinese companies take and existing western idea, add various China-centric bells and whistles to it (for example, Kaixin has a hugely popular car-park based game that would only be successful in China) and then market it with the usual censorship and the all important Chinese character set.  Even the censorship software that was produced at the government’s behest used a blacklist and source code that was pirated from an American company.  It’s a game that been well played in the US movie industry – we suffer endless remakes of Mission:Impossible, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, ad nauseum – good ideas that worked in the past are much safer to invest in.

American companies have taken a lot of heat for even setting foot in China.  Yahoo!, Cisco and Google have all been hauled up in front of the US senate to explain just what the hell they’re up to in China.  Getting into bed with the commies still rattles some cages up on Capitol Hill.  Cisco has been suspiciously quiet about supplying hardware and software that runs the Great Firewall, Yahoo! handed over emails that got a human rights activist thrown in the slammer, and as for Google.  Well.

Google made a convincing argument when they started running Google.cn.  They pointed out that a limited search engine is much better than no search engine at all.  For a long time, they had me convinced.  They spouted at length the need to comply with local laws, as did Yahoo!  But that was before they felt the sharp end of Chinese business practices.  But that’s all changed for the time being.  For the time being, it’s Google vs. China.

It’s not the first time that big business has gone head-to-head with the Chinese government.  Green Dam/Youth Escort (remember that?) was effectively retired after a number of Chinese companies complained that the deadlines imposed by the Chinese government were impossible to abide by, and that the software itself was buggy beyond belief.  It was the first time that business had won out over the mandate of the Chinese government.  Now it looks like Google is trying to do the same thing.

There’s a lot riding on this.  Apart from the thousands of people that are employed at Google China – and it’s a good bet that a number of fine upstanding party members have sons and daughters working there – a growing number of businesses and individuals have become increasingly reliant on Google technology.  The grievances that Google has are pretty serious, it’s been well known that Chinese hackers have not been shy in recent years, to the point that they’re now posing a serious threat to the US.  The problem is that that Google has discovered that at least 20 other countries that have had major security breaches inflicted upon them that originated in the Chinese mainland.  While these companies haven’t yet been named, what should concern the Chinese is if Google has enough clout to convince the others that operating within Chinese law and getting your hand bitten for your trouble simply isn’t worth it.

UPDATES

Since the above was put together while I was waiting to make phone calls to some of the good folk of Beijing, much has beeen written in the last 8 hours, so here is a short collection of links that didn’t exist at the time of writing.

Imagethief
James Fallows (The Atlantic)
Global Voices Online
The Peking Duck
Shanghaiist
China Hearsay

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  1. January 15, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    You need to dig a bit deeper. There are still widespread human rights abuses in China (especially of Christians) and they do NOT have the same freedoms we take for granted in the west: freedom of speech, freedom of press, etc.

  1. January 13, 2010 at 7:34 am

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