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With Google censorship, China is tough -- on the outside

Officials, predictably, insist on social control when Google balks at censorship. But China may want the company more than it's willing to admit and could be hoping for a quiet end to the hullabaloo.

March 26, 2010|By Barbara Demick and David Pierson
  • Security officers try to stop people from lighting candles outside Google's Chinese headquarters in Beijing. A commerce official reassured foreign companies that they were still welcome in China.
Security officers try to stop people from lighting candles outside Google's… (Andy Wong / Associated Press )

Reporting from Beijing — The ever-quotable Deng Xiaoping once said that when you open the window, flies get in.

Although the late Chinese leader hardly could have conceived three decades ago of Google, Twitter or Facebook as those troublesome pests, the sentiment remains unchanged. The Communist Party has long wrestled with how to weigh the competing dictates of economic openness and social control; how to attract international businesses without bringing in too many foreigners and their alien ideas; how to let people enjoy the educational opportunities of the outside world without undermining the party's ideological hold.

When there's been a clash of those interests, Beijing almost always has come down on the side of control. In that context, its unwillingness to bend to Google Inc.'s demands for less censorship of the Internet was a foregone conclusion.

"The Chinese are very mindful of the potential political repercussions of openness -- they make no bones about it -- and around the margins, their desire to maintain social stability will trump any other issue," said Kenneth Lieberthal, senior China analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Google announced Monday that it would close its search engine operation on the mainland and redirect users to its Hong Kong site, an outcome that was a victory for hard-liners within the Politburo, in particular Li Changchun, the propaganda chief, and Zhou Yongkang, who oversees security services.

The hard-liners had maintained that China's security would be harmed if Internet users could freely learn about the 1989 crackdown on demonstrators at Tiananmen Square or the banned Falun Gong movement.

Yet the mood was hardly celebratory, and strains within the Chinese system showed clearly in wildly divergent public statements.

China's propaganda apparatus accused Google of a being in cahoots with the U.S. government in a "deliberate plot" to destroy China with its insistence on Internet freedom. The English-language China Daily went as far as to invoke images of the Opium Wars in an editorial Tuesday that said Google's "arrogance can easily remind the Chinese people of the 'big powers' who cracked open China's doors by warships and cannons in the 19th century."

At the same time, the Foreign Ministry tried to downplay the incident as an "individual commercial case," and the Commerce Ministry tried to reassure members of the business community that they were still welcome in China.

"We are not saying we are perfect in opening up," Deputy Commerce Minister Zhong Shan told reporters Wednesday in Washington after a meeting at the Treasury Department. "We are trying to improve the process of opening up through trial and error."

The Google case comes at a time when foreign companies are becoming increasingly vociferous in their complaints about the business climate in China. Many of the 203 American companies in a survey released Monday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said they felt unwelcome in the Chinese market.

At least one other technology company, U.S.-based GoDaddy.com Inc., the world's largest domain registration service, said it would follow Google in leaving China.

"I think there has clearly been a rise of nationalism in China and a view that foreign companies got privileges for a long time," said Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Dragonomics, a Beijing-based economic research firm. "Now, it's time for the domestic companies. China doesn't need foreign businesses as much anymore for capital or technology."

But Google isn't any ordinary foreign business. Its presence in China represented a connection to the leading edge of the Internet, and its departure raises doubts about the Communist Party's ability to coexist in the technological age.

"They don't want to admit how important Google is," said James McGregor, a veteran business consultant and author based in Beijing. "If you look at the demographics of who is using it in China, it is the scholars, the lawyers, the young people, the businesspeople who need Google to be connected to the world."

Since Monday, Google has been redirecting searches from China to its Hong Kong portal in what could be seen as a face-saving compromise for both sides. Mainland Internet users can still search in Chinese and English. Although the Hong Kong site is not blocked, some searches from the Chinese mainland are restricted.

McGregor said he did not believe the government would make any move to block the Hong Kong site or attempt to punish Google seriously for fear of further inflaming the situation. "I think they just want this issue to go away," he said.

barbara.demick

@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

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