Leaving and Not Leaving China

In the latest skirmish in the Google-China information war–but is really more like a US-China war, it seems to me, in which we have been drafted by a private corporation with what I can’t see as consent–Google has shut off its mainland china servers and redirected traffic to google.hk. It’s another remarkable example of the rhetoric easily portrayed as that of the “left” in this discussion is as usual nothing but rand corporation gobbledygook in whole-earth clothing.

Consider this recent interview with Google founder Sergey Brin:

But in matters of censorship, political speech and Internet communications, he said, there is a totalitarian mentality that controls policy. “Our objection is to those forces of totalitarianism,” he said.

Since Google said in January that it might pull its Chinese search operation out of the mainland, bloggers have speculated that the company might then develop and distribute software tools to sidestep censorship. But when asked, Mr. Brin said, “I think those tools are going to come of their own accord. I don’t think we have to do anything.”

Google’s actions, he said, may play a long-run role in easing Internet censorship in China. “Our hope is there is progress and a more open Internet in China,” he observed.

Mr. Brin added that efforts by China, Iran and other governments to control online speech” a “half an Internet” approach, he said, “will likely fail eventually. I think that in the long term, they are going to have to open,” he said.

(Steve Lohr, “Interview: Sergey Brin on Google’s China Move,” The New York Times “Bits,” March 22, 2010)

China is a deeply problematic country. But I think, right now, it is troubling to compare it to the soviet union of Brin’s youth–if anything, a more apt comparison might be today’s Russia.

It’s hard to see how china has “half an internet.” I’m repeating myself, but it’s also hard to see that many if not a majority of China’s population know what is happening with their government’s information controls and approve of them. The information to which Chinese citizens do not have access is very limited; it is primarily political information in which very few are actively interested (just like in the US), and otherwise a general set of controls over pornography and the amount of commercial information that floods their market. To many Chinese people, the internet is completely open; and for most things we would think of as “research subjects,” it is.

But that’s not totalitarianism. China is not orienting itself around enslavement of its population, even if some of its manufacturing practices are disturbing–these practices are part of western capitalism and found in all low-cost environments that have allowed investment capital to take hold. A huge number of china’s emerging middle and upper classes are drenched in western culture; to suggest they are blocked from access to any of it as soviets were is to radically misframe the situation.

I go into such detail because it helps to expose the neoliberal undergirding of Google’s info-absolutist perspective. If a society does not have the right to determine which information it wants and does not want to see, what is the democratic control of information? Chinese people in Beijing read the news, watch TV, see western and Chinese movies and films, and buy products from all over the world mostly from the same stores we do everywhere else.

I have a non-conspiratorial explanation for all this which goes along a different tack. I wonder if Google knows it should never have tried to do business in china. China’s own bizarre approach to intellectual property ensures that nothing you do there can be kept secret; if your business depends on keeping secrets (which in most of the world Google depends upon), you’d better not do business there. If your business depends on keeping information secret in a culture which technologically and socially prevents it–at least from the prying eye of the government–you are guaranteed no ability to control your intellectual property.

All of which, in my mind, shows the differential implementation of cyberspace in china, precisely because certain norms that are taken for granted in our discourse are realized quite differently there. There is absolute anarchy with regard to intellectual privacy. There is absolute or near-absolute anarchy with regard to “regulation,” “quality control,” “health and safety standards.” it should be a libertarian’s dream. Actually, driving there is a libertarian’s dream–they should try it sometime.

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