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Google Bus

Amid uncertainty regarding Google’s future in China, on March 10, 2010, a line 319 bus near the East Gate of Beijing University is wrapped in an advertisement for the company. The URL on the back of the bus still works, though it’s now being routed through Hong Kong.

—Photo by Sara Kile

Sara Kile is a PhD candidate in premodern Chinese literature at Columbia University. She is currently in Nanjing conducting research for her dissertation, “Experimenting in the Limelight: Cultural Entrepreneurship in Early Qing China.”


This essay is based on the script of a talk Ying Zhu gave at Google’s New York offices on February 12, 2010. Sections in bold were not part of the original talk, but have been added by the authors to tease out some of the issues that were left without further elaboration due to time constraints.

By Ying Zhu and Bruce Robinson

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran with Ying Zhu listed as its sole author. After it appeared, Ying Zhu informed us that it should be described as a co-authored commentary, in recognition of the extraordinary contribution to it by Bruce Robinson, with whom she had collaborated closely on a related project; we have followed her wishes; and both Ying Zhu and China Beat ask that in further attributions or discussion both authors be equally credited for this work.

I have recently been reading new books about China with titles like What Does China Think? and How China’s Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China’s Reform and What This Means for the Future — good books that give us genuinely valuable insight into the thinking of many of China’s leading political and intellectual lights. But what they make me think is that we may not be thinking enough about what Chinese society thinks, so I would like to take the opportunity to discuss the concept of China’s emerging “critical masses,” and the power that the critical masses have in shaping the future of China.

I would like to propose that the Chinese people are more and more the masters of their own destiny, and maybe yours. As you know, sometime in 2008 China surpassed the U.S. as the country with the largest number of Internet users. That’s the same year that it became the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. It is also the United States’ leading creditor, owning, by most accounts, over 1 trillion dollars of U.S. debt, and it will soon pass Japan as the world’s second largest economy. So as Americans, as citizens of the world, and especially as Googlers, you all have something riding on China’s choices now and in the future, even without the current controversy. And speaking of that controversy, naturally, I should factor Google’s recent adventures in China into the overall scheme of my take on Chinese media and society.

I want to say first that I am thrilled to be here at the reigning search engine of “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Thrilled, but I might also say “in thrall,” since in my line of work it has become nearly impossible to operate without constant resort to the little magic box that transforms keywords into the raw material of articles and books. Maybe you could get it to do the writing too, in addition to dating?

Once, of course, there was no Google. Back in the days before Google, say 30 years or so “BG,” communications scholars used to give too little credit to audiences, who they regarded as mostly passive recipients of messages contained in a one way flow of mass mediated communication.

We are repeating the same pattern today in paying too much attention to China’s leaders and intellectuals, and to the surface content of media messages, without considering how Chinese audiences use and interpret media and produce their own mediated information. We also tend to emphasize government control and censorship of the media and the Internet, citing the “Great Firewall of China” without considering either the real extent of information available, or what people do with it. We are not alone in this. The Chinese state may also be giving audiences too little credit, persisting in a deep-rooted conviction that national unity and political stability can only be maintained through paternalistic management of culture and information.

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Almost three weeks have passed since Google’s January 12 announcement that it would be reconsidering its Chinese operations, and although the company has not yet indicated a final decision about its future in China, the issues raised by this matter have sparked a number of thoughtful analyses. Yesterday, China Beat featured a piece by Geremie Barmé on “The Harmonious Evolution of Information in China”; below, some more recent commentaries on the Google and China story that have gotten our attention:

1. NPR’s Fresh Air program, “Fighting Cybercrime, One Digital Thug at a Time.” Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies interviews Joseph Menn, a journalist who has been investigating hacker collectives and daily lives of hackers (chronicled in his new book, Fatal System Error), and Barrett Lyon of 3Crowd Technologies.

2. At Foreign Policy, Adam Segal writes of “The Chinese Internet Century.” Segal considers Hillary Clinton’s January 21 speech, “Internet Freedom,” but has little hope that Clinton’s words will effect much change:

Censorship, hacking, and economic warfare as practiced in China are rooted in a political and economic calculus that is unlikely to change. From the first introduction of modern information technologies, the Chinese have viewed them as a double-edged sword: essential to economic growth, but a threat to regime stability. Using a combination of old-school intimidation and high-tech surveillance, Beijing has managed to keep most materials it deems harmful off most computer screens in China and still promote economic growth.

The fact is that the majority of Chinese simply don’t care, giving the government even less incentive to change its ways. Technologically savvy Chinese “netizens” — if that term even has meaning in a place like China — find ways to fan qiang (scale the “Great Firewall”), but most users, like their counterparts elsewhere, are more interested in entertainment gossip, pirated MP3s, and updates from their friends than missives from Falun Gong or the latest report from Human Rights Watch. U.S. State Department spending on proxy servers or technologies that hide users’ identities temporarily allow some Chinese greater access to information online, but won’t substantially change the underlying dynamics.

3. Two conversations about China, Google, and internet freedom have been posted at the Carnegie Council’s website. Alexandra Harney and Devin Stewart discuss “A Question of Values” in one conversation; in the other (originally at Newsweek on Air), Devin Stewart and Daniel Gross consider Google’s threat to pull out of China.

4. At History Compass Exchange, Shellen Xiao Wu relates today’s “Google v. China” story to conflicts between China and foreign powers going back to the eighteenth century:

Admittedly, historians are rather annoying creatures, prone to making pronouncements like, “Well, actually in 1740….” But I can’t help feeling that when the dust settles, the great Google v. China show-down of 2010 will be seen as only a minor episode in an ongoing debate over the boundaries between commerce and state intervention.

5. YaleGlobal Online features a two-part story, “China and Google: Searching For Trouble.” Part One, by Jonathan Fenby, is here; Part Two, by Jeffrey Garten, can be found here.

6. Thanks to Danwei for directing our attention to this video of Thomas Crampton interviewing Orville Schell, who remarks that Google functions much like a country. Asked if any other company could take a stance similar to Google’s vis-a-vis censorship, Schell declares that “Only Google could do it alone and not be vulnerable.”


By Geremie R. Barmé

As the contretemps involving Google’s conflicted presence in the People’s Republic of China unfolds, it is timely to recall one anniversary that passed by all but unnoticed in 2009: that of a covert Cold War-era clash between John Foster Dulles and Mao Zedong in 1959. This overlooked anniversary is worth recalling now, since it is of particular relevance to contextualizing the remarks—and the Chinese response to those remarks—that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made regarding Internet freedom and US policy at the Newseum in Washington on 21 January 2010 (see here for full text of Clinton’s speech).

In that speech Clinton reminds her audience of comments that President Barack Obama made on Internet freedom during the webcast section of his November “town hall meeting” in Shanghai. As Clinton said: “In response to a question that was sent in over the Internet, he [Obama] defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity. The United States’ belief in that truth is what brings me here today.”

In her speech the Secretary of State also referred to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, as well as to Franklin Roosevelt’s support for the Four Freedoms in 1941 (that is, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear), and Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to have those freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights years later following the end of WWII.

Something Clinton did not mention, however, was the policy advice of another Secretary of State given in the crucial years after the war and during the opening salvos of the Cold War. That Secretary of State is John Foster Dulles, and his strategy related to “peaceful evolution” would have quickly figured in the thinking of Chinese political figures and strategists as they pored over Clinton’s January 2010 remarks.

Dulles first articulated a US policy in support of the peaceful evolution of socialist countries into polities more acceptable and in tune with the western democracies in 1953; he further elaborated it in 1958 and again in ’59. Dulles formulated this policy as a way of encouraging a peaceful transition within those disparate societies away from violent authoritarian, one-party control in favour of political and social pluralism, not to mention the market economy. Among other things, Dulles argued that support for nascent forms of opposition within socialist countries, cultural subversion and the spread of information were all important in the ideological Cold War.

In China, as he became more concerned with the future of the revolution, the political backsliding of the Soviet Union and the question of “revolutionary successors,” Mao Zedong formulated a response to Dulles. He outlined his views at a small Party gathering convened at what is now the Dahua Hotel (Dahua fandian 大华饭店) in Hangzhou in November 1959. The Party elder Bo Yibo 薄一波 quotes from Mao’s Hangzhou speech in his fascinating memoir (published in two volumes in 1991 and ’93 respectively):

Dulles said that justice and law should replace violence and that war should be abandoned, and law and justice should be emphasized. Dulles also argued that the abandonment of force under the circumstances did not mean the “maintenance of the status quo,” but meant a peaceful “change.” (laughter) Change whom peacefully? Dulles wants to change countries like ours. He wants to subvert and change us to follow his ideas…. Therefore, the United States is attempting to carry out its aggression and expansion with a much more deceptive tactic…. In other words, it wants to keep its order and change our system. It wants to corrupt us by a peaceful evolution.

In the following months and years, Mao frequently mentioned the dangers of peaceful evolution (heping yanbian 和平演变in Chinese), and the looming threat of revisionism in China. This double threat, and his own concerns about the limited semi-market policy reforms of his colleagues, as well as anxiety over the successors to his revolutionary cause, contributed to his thinking on what would become the Cultural Revolution.

As I have noted elsewhere, since the initiation of the Reform era some three decades ago, the Chinese Communist Party’s policy on peaceful evolution has effectively been evacuated of its earlier pro-socialist and radical revolutionary ideological content. What remains is a theoretical justification sanctioned originally by Mao Zedong and later Deng Xiaoping for a nationalism (or “Chinese particularism”) wedded to authoritarian one-party politics. It would be unwise to forget that Deng and his colleagues were quick to blame the United States and other countries for politically manipulating the 1989 Protest Movement, for attempting to use civil unrest in China to turn the country into a “bourgeois vassaldom” (zibenzhuyi guojia fushuguo 资本主义国家附属国) of the West, or a “totally Western-dependent bourgeois republic”. This “plot” aimed at encouraging China to peacefully evolve into a democracy dependent on international capital was seen as a continuation of a struggle in which China’s Communist Party had been engaged since the late 1950s. (See my editorial introduction to Qiang Zhai, “1959: Preventing Peaceful Evolution,” China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 18, June 2009).

One could argue that the fundamental national-ideological, nay philosophical difference between China’s Party-state (or Party-empire, to use Chu Anping’s powerful term from the 1950s), and that of liberal democracies has changed relatively little since Mao enunciated the anti-peaceful evolution line in 1959. While the present leaders might not read many controversial accounts of Chinese history, there is no doubt that through the influential Zhongnanhai Lecture Series (Zhongnanhai jiangzuo 中南海讲座, invited lectures by specialists in various fields) and the reading of memoirs by party elders such as Bo Yibo (Politburo member Bo Xilai’s 薄熙来 father) present (and future) leaders learn and revisit the struggles of the nascent Party-state in the 1950s. Strategist and advisers of my acquaintance sometimes also revisit the works and strategies of Mao Zedong when formulating their own advice.

Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on freedom of information and the Internet is a clear enunciation of the long-term rhetorical and ideological divide between various authoritarian states and the liberal democracies. One such state, China, was in 1959 in the grip of a new phase of ideological and nationalistic fervour that would play out with tragic consequences in the 1960s and ’70s. Again, in 1989, the old Maoist strategic response to US policies espousing various basic freedoms served both a familiar, and a new purpose. The effect since—carefully honed patriotic education, the increasingly sophisticated use of the semi-independent media, the guided commentariat on TV and radio—have melded together both as a result of careful planning and sheer happenstance to form a continued response to “Western” efforts and hopes to see China evolve into a more pluralistic society. Since 2005, the Hu-Wen leadership of the Communist Party has pursued a policy underpinned by a strategy to create and maintain a “harmonious society.” It is a kind of harmony that is policed with overt rigour. So much is “harmonized” (和谐掉 hexie diao) in the process of creating a quiescent socio-economic environment in which authoritarianism and plutocracy hold sway, that “to harmonise” has become a common verb in colloquial Chinese meaning “to censor,” “elide” or “expunge.” Under the Party China eschews the old strategy of peaceful evolution and its recent upgrades in favour of what I would call “harmonious evolution” (hexie yanbian 和谐演变).

In her January speech Hillary Clinton added a new freedom to Roosevelt’s 1941 list of four: the freedom to connect, or as she put it, “The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyber space.” She announced that the US government is “supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their right of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship.” She also identified the crucial importance of information flows, noting in particular that, “Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on both sides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions.” Clinton concluded that, “By advancing this agenda, we align our principles, our economic goals, and our strategic priorities. We need to create a world in which access to networks and information brings people closer together, and expands our definition of community.”

Such assertions, along with clearly articulated and appropriately funded strategies, to undermine autocracy through new media and via the agency of connected communities with free and equal access to information lead some mainland commentators to suggest that the Chinese Party-state is wise to maintain its unilateral freedom to pull the plug. Not surprisingly then, the Chinese media was quick to cast Clinton’s 21 January speech as merely the latest expression of US “information imperialism,” one that is nothing more than an example of post-colonial hegemonic behaviour. It is careless and unhelpful to dismiss such bloviating as just the usual sensationalist hyperbole and overblown official rhetoric. To my mind, these responses are reflective of something more basic and enduring, and we discount such formulations as mere semantics, or the latest example of Chinese bombast, at our peril.

In 1997, China’s avowed “Year of the Internet,” the oral historian Sang Ye and I were invited by the editors of WIRED magazine to conduct an informal survey of the Chinese Internet. The piece, published in the June 1997 issue of the magazine, was titled ‘The Great Firewall of China’—to my knowledge, the first time that expression was used (WIRED, vol.5, no.6). For our study we interviewed the then head of the Internet surveillance authority in Beijing, a man we called “Comrade X.” He summed up the basic official response to the ever-spreading net, as well as information hegemony and online anarchy with a crisp and clear formulation: “You make a problem for us, and we’ll make a law for you.”

Also in that article we interviewed Xia Hong, the PR man for a company called China InfoHighway. He offered us a view that thirteen years ago adumbrated the line taken more recently by such outlets as the Global Times in response to both the Google affair and Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom. Xia said to us, “A network that allows individuals to do as they please, lets them go brazenly wherever they wish, is a hegemonistic network that harms the rights of others.” He made the following prediction:

As we stand on the cusp of the new century, we need to—and are justified in wanting to—challenge America’s dominant position. Cutting-edge Western technology and the most ancient Eastern culture will be combined to create the basis for dialog in the coming century. In the 21st century, the boundaries will be redrawn. The world is no longer the spiritual colony of America.

Judgment Day for the Internet is fast approaching. At most it can keep going for three to five years. But the end is nigh; the sun is setting in the West, and the glories of the past are gone forever.

In the present context an observation we made in the conclusion to our 1997 survey is also worth recalling here. We wrote:

China’s Open Door policies have had momentous, mostly uncalculated consequences. But that doesn’t mean that the China of the future is going to look more and more like us. It is going to continue to look like China—and will have the wherewithal to do so. As China gets stronger and more wired, it will still be limited by intellectual narrowness and Sinocentric bias. Pluralism and the open-mindedness that comes with it—the worldly curiosity of previous great powers and the idealism that often supports it—simply are not present. More to the point, they are not about to be encouraged.

The Chinese authorities haven’t forgotten the lessons of 1959 or ’89: why should anyone else?

Geremie R. Barmé is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow and Professor of Chinese History in The ANU College of Asia & the Pacific and the editor of China Heritage Quarterly. He is also the co-designer and main writer of two websites that are blocked in China: and


Now that we’ve all had a few days to think deeply about the Google + China story, lots of commentaries and opinion pieces are coming across the wire. Here’s a sampling of those that caught our attention over the weekend:

1. James Kynge at the Financial Times, “China and the west: Full circle”:

Google’s defiance of China’s censorship regime is indicative of much more than a single company’s decision to reassert its open-society principles over the pragmatism by which it originally entered the Chinese market, agreeing then to self-censor in return for business licences. Google’s move may suggest that the accommodations made by western companies in China can extend only so far before contorted values snap back into place.

More broadly, though, Google’s actions present at least a symbolic challenge to a broad swath of assumptions that has underpinned the west’s engagement with China over the past 30 years. In particular, they raise the question as to whether missionary capitalism – the prevalent but fuzzy belief that the west’s commercial engagement may somehow bring about a Chinese political liberalisation – has ever been more than a naive hope.

2. Rebecca MacKinnon at RConversation, “Google, China, and the future of freedom on the global Internet”:

Google is betting its global business success on an open Internet. If you look at Google’s latest China move through the lens of global Internet policy trends and not just through the lens of Chinese politics, or China’s relationship with the West, it makes a lot more sense.  It makes sense from a business standpoint for Google not only to oppose censorship but to work actively against it, and do everything in their power to influence global policies, laws, and community practices that favor openness. In the past year they’ve gotten increasingly vocal about censorship – and not just in authoritarian countries like China.

3. This “Room for Debate” conversation at The New York Times features eight short essays dealing with the question “Can Google beat China?”

4. Ian Johnson and Jason Dean at The Wall Street Journal, “Google’s China threat upends norms”:

While the U.S. Internet giant’s move isn’t likely to be emulated by other big foreign companies, its unexpected defiance is certain to fuel debate over business relations with China. For years, Western companies have accepted that business is done a certain way in China—agreeing to government interference that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere, from stifling free speech to setting up Communist Party cells. And over the past generation, outside political leaders have drawn a similar conclusion, choosing to play down human rights in the hopes of effecting change.

This has been driven by China’s rapidly increasing importance. Already the largest market for everything from cellphones to a range of commodities, China surpassed the U.S. last year as the biggest market for cars. It supplanted Germany as the world’s top exporter, and is on pace to pass Japan this year as the second-biggest economy after the U.S.

But as Google’s move shows, China’s rise is being accompanied by growing tension with the outside world over policies and practices that defy international norms and that many in the West are finding more unpalatable.

5. This video from PBS NewsHour gives an overview of the Google + China story, followed by interviews with Xiao Qiang of China Digital Times and Andrew Lih, director of new media at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.


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