China: Message behind the Google flowers

2010-02-01 - damon

Google's official announcement regarding its new approach to China has been escalated to the diplomatic exchange between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese officials, who denied any role in the attacks.

Although the decision may be business in nature, Google's market share in China is not big while there are more and more political risks in keeping their business in China. The 10 years sentence of mainland Chinese journalist Shi Tao is the most well known case in which Yahoo! (Hong Kong) provided the Chinese government with Shi's email information as evidence for the prosecution.

The scandal has cost Yahoo! reputation and trust from its clients. As Rebecca MacKinnon puts it: We may as well trash Google's decision because of its corporate self-interest, however, it would be more constructive to evaluate and push for changes from the position of concerned netizens who want a more free and open global Internet.

Let's take a closer look at the concerned netizens in China. The first reaction was a large number of cheering tweets in twitter and then spontaneous but risky collective act of flower-delivery to Google offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. What is the reason behind the cheering given that it is a business decision and the withdrawal of Google from China would be a loss to Chinese internet users? Chinese blogger Beifeng summarizes the history of in a Hong Kong based newspapers Mingpao -

Aug 31 2002 - was first blocked in China, although it was unblocked after two weeks, Goolge cache continued to be blocked and google image search was not functioning well. This incident occurred when Baidu was expanding its search engine business in China.

July 19 2005 - Google set up its R&D office in China and former Microsoft vice CEO Li Kai-fu became Google CEO in China region.

Jan 2006 - Google launched and voluntarily subjected to Chinese government's filtering requirement.

Apr 2006 - Google's CEO Eric Schmidt visited China and announced its localized Mainland Chinese name.

Oct 2007 - Youtube has become difficult to be accessed because of irregular blocking.

Dec 2008 - CCTV accused's search engine for linking to illegal drug companies. Google issued a statement suggesting its business competitor Baidu for setting Google up in the scandal.

Jan-Apr 2009 - CIIRC accused Google for spreading illegal and vulgar information in its anti-vulgarity campaign.

Jun 18 2009 - CIIRC issued a statement in its front page accusing Google for spreading pornographic and vulgar information. Most of Google's applications were blocked on 24th of Jun.

Sep 4 2009 - Li Kai-fu left Google and Google Sites and SSL service were blocked.

Oct 13 2009 - CCTV accused Google for violating copyrights of Chinese books.

The time line shows that doing business in China is not easy and it will be more difficult when censorship policy is set to penetrate into peer to peer communication via the MIIT's campaign against the proliferation of pornography on mobile devices. Under such circumstance, concerned netizens in China, who do not have much power in bargaining with the government, choose to cheer for Google's decision. Below is an open thank you letter written by two citizen media organizations in Hong Kong (Hong Kong In-Media and which can reflect the sentiments among concerned netizens in the Chinese world:

We would like to express our support to Google's stand in protecting users' privacy against unreasonable censorship practice. We appreciate Google's responsible attitude in defending users' interest and the Internet public sphere in your business decision. We hope that Google can stay firm in this position and never betray universal values such as privacy, freedom and democracy.

The space for free speech and democracy in China is closely related to Hong Kong. The Chinese government not only filters away politically sensitive content in the Internet, but recently also ban individual from owing cn. domain by requesting all “cn” website to get registered under licensed company and organization. Such kind of practice has destroyed the Internet public sphere and ruined lives of thousands of self-employed web users. Moreover, the Chinese government’s active monitoring of social networking websites (eg.QQ) and mobile phone text message has seriously invaded individual's privacy and could turn into a tool for cracking down political dissidents by the totalitarian government. As concerned Mainland netizens pointed out, Shi Tao’s 10-year sentence, Wang Xiaoning's 10-year sentence, Li Zhi's 8-year sentence, Jiang Lijun’s 4-year sentence, Feng Bi and Tan Zuoren's arrest are all supported by the "evidents" collected through Yahoo! e-mails.

We are thrilled that Google has chosen not to conspired with the Internet censor. We have too many corporations and organizations, which are of great significance to the civil society, public interest, human rights and social justice (such as media corporations and Big NGOs) , choose to practice self-censorship or become the government propaganda machine in order to enter the China market. Today, apart from expressing our gratitude towards Google with our flowers, we also want to educate our society that the meaning of corporate social responsibility is not decorative kind of public relation activities, but a choice made according to the principle of public interest and social justice. This message is particularly significant at the eve of the approval of the HKD66.9 billion appropriation bill of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail (Hong Kong section) by the Hong Kong Legislative Council.

We still enjoy freedom of speech in Hong Kong, but in recent years the government's proposal on “strengthening” copyright protection in the digital environment and the censorship of online pornography have dwindled our private privacy and space of free expression on the Internet. According to the Internet industry, the police ,in the name of investigation, often request ISP and web sites to hand over their users’ IP information without a court warrant. A number of forums (such as the Yahoo forum) were forced to shut down. Given the vagueness in the definition of "pornographic" , police ends up with too much power in law enforcement practice. The situation will be worsen if online derivative creation and streaming of copyrighted work become criminalized under the amendments of digital copyright law. The criminalization implies that video commentaries could be prosecuted by the police even though copyright holders do not suffer from monetary loss. Under such circumstance, our society call for more corporates like Google, which make choice according to conscience and say NO to illegitimate legislation and law enforcement.

Under the authoritarian regime, netizens in mainland China are constantly being monitored for their speech. The act of offering flower to Google has become politically sensitive or even illegal. Thus, on behalf of our mainland counterpart, we present lilies and yellow roses, which symbolize a smiling departure, to Google's Hong Kong office.

The integration of Mainland China and Hong Kong should happen in the level of civil society. In order to do this, we have to tear down the Great Fire Wall that blocks information exchanges between mainland and Hong Kong. Such integration depends on the civil society's will and power and we are grateful that Google has created a fissure on the wall. We hope Google to remain firm in its position and say no to censorship and monitoring practices that violate human rights.

Jan 14, 2010
Hong Kong In-Media