One night in the mid-1990s when I was working as a journalist in Beijing, I went out to dinner with some Chinese friends. I had just finished reading a book called “The File” by the British historian Timothy Garton Ash. It’s about what happened in East Berlin after the Berlin Wall came down and everybody could see the files the Stasi had been keeping all those years. People discovered who had been ratting on whom—in some cases neighbors and co-workers, but also lovers, spouses and even children. After I described the book to my Chinese dinner companions—a hip and artsy intellectual crowd—one friend declared: “Some day the same thing will happen in China, then I’ll know who my real friends are.”
The table went silent.
China today is very different from Soviet-era Eastern Europe. It’s unlikely that its current political system—or its system for blocking foreign Web sites known widely as the “great firewall”—will crumble like the Berlin Wall any time soon. Both are supported and enabled by the current geopolitical, commercial and investment climate in ways that Soviet-era Eastern Europe and the Iron Curtain never were.
I do believe, however, that in my lifetime the Chinese people may learn more about some of the conversations that have taken place over the past decade between Internet company executives and Chinese authorities. When that happens, they will know who sold them out and who was most eager to help the Chinese Communist Party in building a blinkered cocoon of disinformation around their lives—and in some cases deaths.
This censored environment makes it easier for the Chinese government to lie to its people, steal from them, turn a blind eye when they are poisoned with tainted foodstuffs, and cover up their children’s deaths due to substandard building codes. It is a constant struggle, and sometimes literally a crime, for people to share information about such matters or to use the Internet to mobilize against corruption and malfeasance.
That is the information environment that China’s business elites, many of whom have gotten rich running Internet and telecommunications companies, are responsible for helping to build and maintain. For now they are national heroes, having made great (and lucrative) efforts on behalf of China’s economic growth and global competitiveness, making China a force to be reckoned with on the global stage. But if history takes some unexpected turns—and that’s the one thing you can count on Chinese history doing—it won’t always be on their side.
By announcing it will no longer censor its Chinese search engine and will reconsider its presence in China, Google has taken a bold step onto the right side of history.
Four years ago when Google entered the Chinese market and launched Google.cn, Chinese bloggers called it the “neutered Google.” At the time, Google executives said the decision to bow to the Chinese government’s censorship demands had been made after heated internal debates. They said they had weighed the positives and negatives and concluded Chinese Internet users were better off with the neutered Google than with no Google. They drew a red line under search and said they would not bring any other Google products containing users’ personal information—including email and blogging—into China. They held to that line.
Over the past four years I tested Google.cn from time to time and compared its search results with the Chinese market leader, Baidu. I found that Google.cn tended to censor search results somewhat less than Baidu. This supported Google’s argument that it at least gave Chinese Internet users more information than the domestic alternatives.
Google executives also pointed out that a notice appeared at the bottom of every page of censored results on Google.cn, informing users that some information was being hidden from them at the behest of Chinese authorities. In this way, the logic went, they were at least being honest with the Chinese public about the fact that Google was helping their government put blinkers on them.
The company’s effort to walk a fine line between Chinese regulators and free speech critics ended up being unsustainable. Anticensorship activists still viewed its compromise as contributing to the spread of censorship around the world. On the other hand, the compromise was also unacceptable to Chinese authorities, who were unhappy that Google wasn’t censoring as heavily as Baidu. Last year Google came under a series of attacks in the state-run media for failing to censor porn adequately when users—horror of horrors—typed smutty phrases into the search box.
As Google considers exactly what it will do next now that it has refused to censor, some Chinese users are expressing support and sending flowers, others are upset, and others are thumbing their noses, good riddance. Competitors are gloating. Google is in for a rough few months ahead. In the longer run, history will reveal to the Chinese people who their real friends have been.
Ms. MacKinnon is a fellow with the Open Society Institute. She is writing a book about China and the Internet.