Why Google should stay in China

By Yasheng Huang
Sunday, March 28, 2010; B04

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Google co-founder Sergey Brin explained why his company decided to close its search engine in China. The problem, he explained, is that China reminds him of the country of his birth, the former Soviet Union. After lauding China's "great strides" in reducing poverty, Brin had this to say about Chinese politics: "In some aspects of their policy, particularly with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents, I see the same earmarks of totalitarianism, and I find that personally quite troubling."

There are at least two people in China who might disagree. One is Zhou Jiugeng, a former official in the city of Nanjing, who could hear about the Google wars only from a prison cell. Zhou was sentenced to 11 years in jail last year after he was spotted sporting a $25,000 watch, one far out of reach of the pay of a civil servant. This led to an online uproar, with countless postings and blogs questioning Zhou's income. A government investigation ensued, and Zhou was found to have accepted almost $200,000 in bribes. He was fired, prosecuted and sent to jail. (The same investigation apparently found that his watch was a fake, but that's another story.)

The second individual is Deng Yujiao, a young woman who rebuffed sexual advances by a government official in May 2009 and then stabbed him to death when he attempted to rape her. She was arrested, prompting a massive protest, online and off, with Chinese netizens and civil rights organizations petitioning for her release. Emboldened by the popular response, even the traditional Chinese media weighed in. Bowing to the pressure, the government cleared all the charges against Deng, and arrested and dismissed two officials who were present at the scene of the incident.

Without a vibrant Internet community in China, Zhou and Deng would probably have traded places -- Zhou going about his corrupt business and Deng languishing in jail. But the Internet has given China a measure of transparency, accountability and public voice, with an impact far more powerful than decades of 10 percent economic growth, foreign investment and urbanization. Brin is right that China's political system retains many of the Leninist attributes of the old Soviet Union, but he is wrong to conflate the government's attempts to enforce those attributes with the actual results.

The Google co-founder, who came to the United States in 1979, when he was 6 years old, complained in the interview that online censorship in China has intensified in recent years. Indeed, according to China Digital Times, a publication based in Berkeley, Calif., the Chinese government maintains a list of hundreds, if not thousands, of banned search terms, with new ones added periodically.

But let's maintain some perspective. Relative to the total information available on the Internet in China, the number of banned terms is minuscule, no matter how quickly the list expands. According to the China Internet Network Information Center, a Web site run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the total amount of digital information stored on Chinese Web sites has increased by more than 40 percent since 2005. There are now more than 9 million domain names registered under ".cn," compared with 1.1 million in 2006, when Google first entered China. The country has more than 300 million Internet users and more than 700 million mobile subscribers, many of whom access the Web with their phones. It defies logic to imagine exerting airtight and sustained control over such a massive Internet network.

Imagine trying to enforce a speed limit -- say 35 miles an hour -- in 1930 and in 2010. Surely there would be a lot more infractions in 2010; after all, there are more cars today and they can go faster. But does the higher number of violations mean that the authorities are intensifying traffic control? No, it means the technology they're seeking to control has changed. That is the situation with the Internet in China today. The government is trying to foist its old notions of information control on a rapidly changing and elusive technology. It is not that censorship is increasing, but that the volume of information to be censored is now far greater.

Brin cites the Chinese government's increasing requests that Google censor information as evidence of greater censorship. That's one way to interpret the data. Another equally plausible explanation is that the supply of content deemed worthy of censoring has multiplied, forcing the government to play catch up, often from a hopeless distance.

Anyone who has spent time online in China can testify that the Internet community there is easily one of the most dynamic and vibrant on Earth. On any issue, there are passionate debates and opinions across the ideological spectrum. Maoists, Hayekians and Confucians trade barbs with insults and zealotry. Blogs by serious intellectuals attract audiences unimaginable in the West. China's market for ideas is enormous. Last month, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, went online and personally answered netizens' questions, even some that, by Chinese standards, were rather blunt. (One answer Wen gave on the real estate market prompted a blogger in China to post all the past statements Wen had made on controlling real estate prices -- alongside an index of rising prices.)

Yes, a Google search on the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989 would yield nothing more than "no results due to restrictions of local laws and regulations," but I imagine that the protesters of 1989 would have cringed at the strident criticisms of government policies and officials that are online in China today. Western observers are fixated on dramas such as the Tiananmen protests and the condition of human rights dissidents. They forget that bread-and-butter issues, such as high housing prices and polluted rivers, now animate citizens as much as ideas of freedom and democracy did two decades ago.

Regardless of Brin's fears, China is no Soviet Union. Thanks to the Internet, Chinese citizens have acquired the technological means -- although not yet the full legal protections -- of free speech, defined as the ability to question and criticize the government. There are limits to this freedom, and many of us no doubt find them too numerous and onerous. But we should acknowledge that China has made genuine economic and social progress over the past 30 years, as well as progress in freedom of speech during the past 10 years, a decade in which the Internet truly came to China. Yes, censorship rightly offends moral sensibilities, but with the list of banned search terms, we at least we know where the limits are, and we can learn to adapt, test or even evade them.

Google's effort to abide by its noble motto -- "Don't be evil" -- in China should be judged not by the company's intentions but by the consequences of its actions. By closing its search engine there, Google will harm the cause of free speech, transparency and accountability in China. Democracy is in many ways a technological revolution; without the world's foremost technology leader, China's Internet space will become less innovative, less dynamic and less vibrant.

Google's position as a distant second to Baidu, the Chinese search engine, does not detract from the company's importance. Its presence has forced Baidu to wrestle with the tradeoff between satisfying the government censors and retaining its users. This is the power of competition. But Google's departure will leave Baidu as a virtual monopoly. A monopolist, as Brin knows well from his experience with Microsoft, does not value consumer welfare. The losers will be China's netizens -- the very people who are key to driving the political and social changes Brin favors.

In 2006, when Google was debating whether to enter China, it concluded that a more vibrant Internet would change the country for the better. I fear that history will show that its 2006 decision was prescient but that its 2010 move was mistaken.

And by the way, how does the whole world know which search terms the Chinese government has banned? Chinese Web users posted the list. Who else?

Yasheng Huang is a professor of political economy and business at MIT's Sloan School of Management and the author of "Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State."

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