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Could Google Bring Freedom to China?

After years of interference from the Chinese government, Google puts its foot down

By Nicholas D. Kristof


When Google started doing business in China in 2006, it agreed to censor search results to comply with Chinese law—a controversial decision for a company whose motto is "Do no evil." But Google argued it could do more good by operating in China, even with government restrictions, than by not being there at all.

That all changed in January when Google discovered that Chinese hackers had tried to break into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists. Implying that the Chinese government was responsible, Google said it would no longer censor search results in China—and that it would pull out of China if it were not allowed to operate freely.

Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof argues that Google's principled stand will help China and its people in the long run.

Google's decision to stand up to Chinese cyber-oppression is positively breathtaking. By announcing that it no longer plans to censor search results in China, even if that means it must withdraw from the country, Google is showing spine—a kind that few other companies or governments have shown toward Beijing.

One result was immediate: Young Chinese have been visiting Google's headquarters in Beijing to deposit flowers and pay their respects.

China promptly tried to censor the ensuing debate about its censorship, but many Chinese Twitter users went out of their way to praise Google. One declared: "It's not Google that's withdrawing from China, it's China that's withdrawing from the world."

Cynics say Google tried to turn a business setback (it's No. 2 in China, behind the local search engine, Baidu) into a bid to burnish its brand. Whatever the motivations, it's a refreshing contrast to Yahoo's decision in 2006 to give the Chinese government access to dissidents' e-mail accounts—a move that sent four dissidents to prison for terms of up to 10 years.

"In the 20 years I've been doing this work, I can't think of anything comparable," says John Kamm, the founder of the Dui Hua Foundation in San Francisco, which has enjoyed remarkable success in encouraging China to release dissidents. Kamm, a former business leader himself, argues that Western companies could do far more to project their values.

Google announced its decision after a sophisticated Chinese attempt to penetrate the Gmail addresses of dissidents. The episode and the resulting flap highlight two important points about China.

Cyberwarfare

The first is that Beijing is increasingly devoting itself to cyberwarfare. This is a cheap way to counter American dominance in traditional military fields. If the U.S. and China ever jostle with force, Beijing may hit us not with missiles but with cyber-infiltrations that shut down the electrical grid, disrupt communications, and tinker with the floodgates of dams.

Moreover, China's leaders aren't keeping their cyber-arsenal in reserve. They already seem to be using it aggressively. A major coordinated assault on computers of the Dalai Lama, foreign embassies, and even foreign ministries was traced to Chinese hackers. The operation targeted computers in more than 100 countries and was so widespread that Western intelligence experts believe it was organized by the Chinese government, although there is no definitive proof.

The second point is that China is redrawing the balance between openness and economic efficiency. When former leader Deng Xiaoping opened up the Chinese economy to free-market reforms in 1978, thus launching its current success, he clenched his teeth and accepted photocopiers, fax machines, cellphones, computers, and lawyers because they were part of modernization.

Yet in the past few years, President Hu Jintao has cracked down on Internet freedoms and independent lawyers and journalists. President Hu is intellectually brilliant but seems to have no vision for China 20 years from now.

Instead, vision and leadership in China have come from its Web-savvy Netizens. They show none of the lame sycophancy that so many foreigners do. In their Twitter photos, many display yellow ribbons to show solidarity with a Chinese writer recently sentenced to 10 years in prison. That's guts!

China's Netizens scale the Great Firewall of China with virtual private networks and American-based proxy servers like Freegate. (The U.S. should support these efforts with additional server capacity as a way of promoting free information and undermining censorship by China and Iran.)

Eventually, a combination of technology, education, and information will end the present stasis in China. In a conflict between the Communist Party and Google, the Party will win in the short run. But in the long run, I'd put my money on Google.


(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, April 5, 2010)