“You can make money without doing evil,” proclaims Google’s corporate mission statement. Except in China, it might have added. This week’s discovery that Chinese agents had been hacking into the online search company’s systems in order to access the accounts of human rights activists was, in a country with an army of 30,000 web monitors, hardly very surprising. Nor was the fact that Beijing’s transgression triggered some serious soul searching at the corporately responsible Googleplex.
For the past four years, Google has begrudgingly accepted China’s strict online censorship rules in order to carve out a piece of the country’s huge and growing web market. That it has been rather successful was reflected by its decision to threaten to leave China, rather than just unplug the servers – the company made an estimated $234m (€162m) in China in the first nine months of 2009, taking 30 per cent of the market.
The Chinese government protested that it, too, was the victim of cyber attacks, even as the state-controlled China Daily ran a rather-too-convenient story about Baidu, the largest Chinese search company, also being targeted by hackers. For all their vigilance, China’s web police do not filter out misguided propaganda.
In truth, the Chinese government has made the internet a key battleground in its campaign to remain indefinitely in power. Some of this energy is spent keeping tabs on Chinese citizens; the rest is directed outwards keeping tabs on the world. And it goes way beyond black-listing websites that mention democracy. The head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard, told a Senate hearing this week about the Chinese military’s growing ability to mount “offensive operations against adversary [computer] networks”. Beijing’s conventional army might not be a match for America’s, but its misfortune-cookies could in theory cripple US mainframes.
This, however, is still an unlikely doomsday scenario. What the Google imbroglio really does show is that the much talked of “China threat”, such as it is, is not just a military phenomenon, as people tend to assume. Chinese paratroops are not about to drop into anyone’s back garden; nor are Beijing’s web cadres going to blue-screen our lives. What a rising China does threaten, though, is the order of the world we know: such as the way in which our companies, such as Google, expect to be able to do business. In the past, the West was able to set the tone of the international environment; now, Beijing is decisively shifting that tone and forcing the rest of us to play on its terms, or not play at all. Many people, moreover, think this is no bad thing: China may not be altogether principled, but then were we in the West?
Aside from that, the Chinese government has set itself a self-defeating task in trying to track the internet’s shifting sands. Someone it might listen to is Lee Kuan Yew, the former leader of authoritarian Singapore and still the eminence grise behind the current prime minister (his son). In Beijing, Lee is greatly admired as the gold standard of lasting one-party rule. Yet even he, when asked about internet censorship recently, admitted that it was a waste of time. Banning dirty magazines was easy, he said; but policing billions of web pages was a fool’s errand.
Google.cn has not struck camp quite yet, and talks with Chinese officials are reportedly underway. A face-saving compromise will most likely be reached: it is in neither side’s best interests for Google to go. But when it comes to censorship, the Chinese government will show Google little flexibility. The company will find that, to stay in China, a little evil will have to be done.