Western media companies have been piling into China along with everyone else. News Corp., AOL Time Warner Inc., Yahoo! Inc. -- there's a long list of broadcast, print, film and cyberspace investors who are negotiating deals in China or have already cut them. Especially in the case of Internet operations, the vague notion is advanced that their presence on the mainland is part of China's great opening, the reform process, democratization and so on -- you know the catchwords.
The Google flap should prompt us to think again. It should cause us to consider the following question: Do foreign investors change China, or does China change foreign investors? When the free flow of information is at stake, it's a critical issue.
Google Inc. has no investment in China. Its Web site is immensely popular because it enables users to search for information using Chinese characters. With no local subsidiary, Google simply gave China's 46 million Web users access to the same universe of information available elsewhere on the planet.
This was the rub, of course. In a much-publicized experiment, a New York Times correspondent in Beijing searched for Jiang Zemin on Google, apparently before the crackdown, and got 154,000 references, among them critical appraisals of the Chinese president with titles such as "Exposing the Crimes of Jiang Zemin." A similar search of Yahoo yielded six references, chief among them a potted biography put out by the People's Daily.
What a difference a domestic subsidiary makes. While Beijing has been controlling Internet access since the mid-1990s, its recent action against Google began earlier this month, when it began automatically redirecting users to state-sanctioned sites. If the Web were a car plant or a textile factory, we'd call this expropriation; if it were an airplane, we might think of it as an official hijacking.
That phase has given way to a subtler approach, if that's the wording. Chinese users can get into Google again, but they can't read items the authorities deem inappropriate: Access has been electronically blocked.
In the old days, I used to wonder where Suharto's Indonesia got the sheer manpower to go through every copy of the Far Eastern Economic Review at the airport and apply black paint across all the Indonesia coverage. I wonder the same thing now about China. How can Beijing possibly hope to keep the world as carried on the Internet at bay?
An interesting answer comes our way in the summer 2002 edition of the Washington Quarterly. "The Internet and Power in One-Party States in East Asia" was written by Nina Hachigian, a former National Security Council official and now director of Rand Corp.'s Center for Asia-Pacific Policy. It's a thorough study of the region's various Internet strategies and worth the read at http://www.twq.com
"Blocking sites is not China's primary mechanism for controlling content," Hachigian writes. "Rather, the self-censorship that the regime promotes among individuals and domestic Internet content providers is the most effective way the regime controls what Chinese viewers see."
So is Google judged "harmful" by Chinese officials and Yahoo's Chinese subsidiary considered "positive" and "responsible" for clearing its site of material offensive to the Chinese leadership? These assessments are upside down, of course.
Yahoo and other local and foreign-owned sites operate in China according to a rigid set of regulations first advanced two years ago and elaborated earlier this year.[..]
"Domestic content providers are aware that, under these broad rules, security forces can shut them down at any time," Hachigian writes. "Thus, they carefully comply with content standards to avoid scrutiny." This means chat rooms are monitored for controversial content and software is applied to delete designated names and terms.
I wonder if "civil society" is among those terms. In the final analysis, preventing the development of any public life not under state or party control must be recognized as the Chinese leadership's intent. A big "Yahoo!" for Jerry Yang, Yahoo's head, for participating in such an enterprise.
Hachigian divides the Internet world into "determinists," who insist the Net and the Web will eventually bring all dictators to their knees, and the "instrumentalists," who assert authoritarian governments cannot only control the Net but also use it for their own purposes. China is a hands-down argument for the naivete of the former and the acuity of the latter.
China has a choice to make, though. It will eventually have to decide between the control of information and the need to be wired if it is to participate in the global economy. At the moment, it's attempting a balance between the two: encouraging Internet use in the business and economic context -- e-commerce and so forth -- and cracking down on social and political groups the Net naturally engenders.
Others in the region face the same choice, even if less starkly. Companies such as Yahoo should mull it, too.
I'm not a determinist on this issue, but neither do I question the positive impact of free-flowing information and the right of Asians and others to it.
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