In the wake of an Iranian uprising broadcast to the world through YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, the acquiescence of American search engines to Chinese censorship laws feels more dangerous than ever.
On the night of June 4, 2009, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese Communist Party celebrated their grim victory over the democracy protesters by sealing off Tiananmen with paramilitary troops and censoring all telecasts. Here, in Manhattan, I joined a pro-democracy demonstration in front of the Chinese Consulate, went home, opened Google and YouTube, and found tens of thousands of articles, videos, and photos of the peaceful student protests and the carnage that followed, most from Chinese sources.
“The news exploding from Iran confirms the power of digital technology in the hands of citizens… But the Iranian protests will only make the Chinese more vigilant in censoring and controlling Internet technology.”
So it is hardly a shock that the Chinese government is now obstructing Google in an effort to control what Li Changchun, senior leader of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Political Bureau, deemed a “vulgar trend” of “uncivilized behavior” on the Internet. Beijing’s Politboro has managed to excise the bloodstains of June 4th from textbooks and televisions, but the Internet is the next frontier to be tamed. As the Web collides with Big Brother, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Lenovo are being forced to collaborate or lose their places in the vast China market.
The Chinese government has ordered all computer firms to install new filtering software, called “Green Dam-Youth Escort,” by July 1. American computer firms have issued tepid statements about respecting “freedom and integrity” in the workplace, scrambling to maintain access, while Chinese citizens have expressed fierce opposition to Green Dam-Youth Escort and censorship. A new poll reveals that 88 percent of Chinese internet users do not want the new spyware in their computers. "Since it mainly targets juveniles, why should it be installed on every computer?" asked one netizen whose screen name was "qiushui." Ma Guangyuan, an economics expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, stated: "This is no excuse for demanding that all new computers be installed with the software."
Until now, Yahoo and Google have complied with the Chinese government’s censorship rules in exchange for entering the Chinese market, which is now over 300 million strong. For years it has been going smoothly, with vast profits reaped by multinational firms and their enabler, the Chinese Communist Party. The latest ruse of protecting children from Internet porn is also a means to shove Google and other foreign firms out of the market, making room for the national Chinese search engine Baidu, where porn sites are up and running, but not links to “Tiananmen,” “Tibet” and “Falon Gong.”
Google presently commands 30 percent of the Chinese market, behind Baidu at 60 percent. When Google’s China investments started to wither as government software filtered access to American sites, the California based company launched “Google.cn” with Kai-Fu Lee, a former Microsoft executive, in charge, in 2005. The music download service proved a hit with Chinese youth, with leakage into other sites, dangerous as the democracy movement that led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre is remembered, which prompted the government to impede Google searches of all kinds, invoking the unimaginative excuse of shielding youth from thoughts of lust.
Google has been frequently criticized for participating in the “Golden Shield Project,” also called the Great Firewall of China, a highly effective internet censorship project. Should you search for specific Chinese keywords on the Politboro’s watch list, google.cn shows this at the bottom of the page (translated into English): “In accordance with local laws, regulations and policies, part of the search result is not shown.” “Tank Man,” the icon image of a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, cannot be found, only this message: “Search may not comply with the relevant laws, regulations and policy, cannot be displayed.”
In the latest press release, Google said the company is working to fix any problems with improper searches in China: "This has been a substantial engineering effort, and we believe we have addressed the large majority of the problem results.” But it may be too late. Edward Yu, chief executive of Analysys, an Internet research company in Beijing, says, “If these restrictions are kept up for more than a few days, they will have a huge impact on Google’s business in China. Traffic will drop quickly because users will find it extremely cumbersome to search.”
During preparations for the Olympics, China installed massive new surveillance and security systems with the generous assistance of Honeywell, General Electric, United Technologies and IBM. Throughout the Olympic gold rush the Bush administration routinely sidestepped the 1990 law stipulating that high-tech must not benefit the Chinese military. This year the Chinese Communist Party slaughtered protesters in Tibet and silenced Tiananmen survivors, paying no price whatsoever from advanced industrial nations of the West, which are in economic recession and increasingly dependent on China’s floating of their financial debt.
On February 15, 2006, representatives of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco Systems were summoned before the House International Relations Committee to defend what Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) called a "sickening collaboration" with the Chinese government that was "decapitating the voice of the dissidents." The executives defended their dealings with the Chinese government on the grounds that China is a global market.
The theory proclaimed by the Wall Street visionaries that spawned the global economic crisis was that China's neo-Maoists were different from Stalin's Bolsheviks--and capitalism would implant democracy. The acquisitive neo-Maoists have indeed proved that they are different from the defunct Soviets; they made capitalism flourish without dismantling the police state. China’s new cyber-censorship and war against Google further exposes the fault lines of “unconditional engagement.”
The news exploding from Iran confirms the power of digital technology in the hands of citizens. It was tourists and by-standers bearing cameras who recorded the slaughter at Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. That was before the Internet, smart-phones, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and all the other social networking sites. But the Iranian protests will only make the Chinese more vigilant in censoring and controlling Internet technology.
Chin Jin, a Chinese exile of the Federation for a Democratic China, notes; “I was a teenager in Shanghai in 1972, when Nixon came to China. An elderly friend of my father’s started to cry when Nixon came. He said, ‘Now the USA has come to the rescue of the Communist Party, and this will prolong the suffering of the Chinese people for many more years.’ He was right.”
Maura Moynihan is the founding director of Friends of Moynihan Station. She lives in New York City.