The recent news that Google is working on a search engine for China’s highly censored Internet reminded me of a Chinese saying: “to have your spine pointed at.” Back home in China, if someone who has done something immoral or unethical is seen walking down the street, others might point at the person’s back after he passes, chastising and cursing him under their breath. Alternatively, if a person is known to be planning to do something unethical, he will be warned against “doing something that gets your spine pointed at.” And the designation is anything but temporary. Anyone who has been singled out this way should prepare for years of ostracization.
Back in 2010, Google grandly announced that it was leaving China’s vast consumer market, citing its hallowed principle of “do no evil.” The company said that it had decided to choose user privacy over profits rather than collaborate with the Communist Party regime in the surveillance of Chinese citizens. I was in prison when I heard this unfolding news, having myself been tracked, traced, spied on and kidnapped, and later tried on bogus charges and sentenced to more than four years in prison for my human rights work. In prison I labored secretly for months to secure a forbidden shortwave radio, which I kept hidden in a used milk carton. I listened to programs like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia at night while wrapped under my quilt, the speaker pressed close to my ear at the lowest possible volume. Having had my freedom denied me by the Chinese Communist Party, the news of this upstart tech company risking lost revenue to do the right thing gave me real hope.
At the time, the CCP’s technological control of the Internet was still in its early stages, and, as I heard over the radio broadcast, praise for Google’s act spread far and wide online, eventually overflowing — literally — onto the streets. People started sending flowers to Google’s headquarters in Beijing, leading the authorities to concoct a new crime (much mocked online) of “illegally sending fresh flowers.” Netizens were undeterred by the threat, and the flowers continued to pile up. Online, Google was anointed with phrases like “virtuous deeds will have friends and neighbors,” and “good people will have good rewards.” The company’s reputation skyrocketed. Everyone looked forward to a day when Google could return to China, welcomed by bouquets and cheering crowds.
The goodwill and admiration of the people are priceless assets, and with proper care, they can grow and flourish. But they can also be easily squandered. Over social media this week, talk of Google has taken a decidedly negative tone: “Google is done for — just burn some paper money for the funeral,” and “we don’t need another slave to the CCP.” The Chinese people know crookedness when they see it and are clear about what they like and dislike.
There is simply no way that Google can feign a neutral stance while developing a search platform designed to serve not the general public but a violent, coercive, authoritarian regime. Censorship, information blackouts and outright propaganda are prime tools in the CCP’s arsenal of control, as evidenced in incidents large and small, recent and historic. The ongoing crackdown on lawyers and human rights activists and the outrageous campaign against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province — all well documented by numerous media outlets, NGOs, the United Nations and the U.S. government — are but two examples in a trove of evidence demonstrating the CCP’s intentions.
And then came news about Google’s work on a censored search engine (code-named “Dragonfly”). After my initial shock wore off, I found myself wondering what had occurred to cause the company to shed its defining principle in such a blatant fashion. Does Google really want to become a tool of the dictatorial communist regime? What about the millions of disappointed Chinese fans? Without their support, and without the company’s moral bearings, how would Google survive in China? Google — and all foreign companies — should remember: The vessel containing a dictatorship’s desire is boundless, never filled, never satisfied. You give an inch, and they will take a mile in irrational demands.
In the days following the announcement, more than 1,400 Google employees signed a petition denouncing the company’s secret development of Dragonfly, demanding transparency and an understanding of the ethical implications of projects of which they are a part. This show of employee outrage is cause for celebration, while also focusing directly on the root of the problem — the company’s leadership.
If Google really wants to get back into China, I have a suggestion: Redirect funding away from secretive censorship technology to circumvention and other tools that allow users to break through the Communist Party’s great firewall. In other words, use your prowess to support everyday people seeking freedom instead of supporting dictatorships. People in China want to access uncensored information about China and the rest of the world, and they deserve it.
Google, you still have time not only to “do no evil” but to actually do good. Work to avoid being subjected to pointing fingers and curses behind your back, and make a genuine contribution to humanity.