Category: Censorship

Vendetta as Diplomacy – China Fails to Renew NY Times Reporter’s Visa

By , January 2, 2013

While I like the Godfather movies as much as the next person, it’s always strange when personal vendettas make it onto the world stage.  But that is what appears to have happened on Monday when the Chinese government failed to renew New York Times reporter, Chris Buckley’s journalist visa before it expired on December 31, 2012.

Although the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains mum* as to the precise reason why it failed to renew Buckley’s visa – which he had been attempting to renew since October – most in the Western media suspect that it is pay back for the New York Times’ series on the enormous sums of wealth and key investments acquired by Premier Wen Jiabao’s family.

In China Wen is very much known as a man of the people – his mother was a teacher and his father a pig farmer and as a result, the people actually like him.  Unlike the other aloof leaders who rarely if ever smile for the cameras, the Chinese people feel a bond with “Grandpa Wen.”  During public crises – natural disasters, train wrecks –  Wen is the man the government sends to relate, and more importantly, to calm an angry public.  In many ways, Wen’s image is important to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

But on October 25, 2012, the New York Times questioned the veracity of that image.  David Barboza, the Times’ Shanghai bureau chief, reported

How can you not love this guy??? Premier Wen Jiabao

that since emerging on the national stage in 1998, Wen’s humble roots fell by the wayside,  at least in terms of his family’s myriad books of business.  While none of the wealth is directly held by Wen, Barboza detailed the estimated $2.7 billion held by members of Wen’s immediate family.

The Chinese government did not take kindly to the article, blocking the New York Times website (which almost three months later remains blocked) and stating that Barboza’s article “smears China and has ulterior motives.”

A month later – on November 24, 2012 – the Times published Barboza’s second damming article on Wen.  The piece documented and insinuated Wen’s role in preventing the legally-mandated break-up of one of his family’s key holdings – Ping An Insurance.   Evidently, the Times did not heed the Chinese government’s rather public warnings.  Is the failure to renew Buckley’s journalist visa payback?

This would not be the first time the Chinese government has used the visa process to punish foreign journalist.  In the past year, visa renewal troubles have become an increasing problem for foreign reporters in China.  In July, China Law & Policy ran a three-part series on this problem (Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here), noting that in 2012 a third of members surveyed by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China had difficulty renewing visas.  The majority of those journalists believed – or in some cases were told – that their difficulty was a result of specific reporting.

In May, Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Melissa Chan, who had covered many of China’s sensitive topics, was expelled from China after the government closed the Al Jazeera Beijing Bureau.  In September, Andrew Higgins, the Washington Post’s China chief who had been waiting in Hong Kong for accreditation from Beijing for the past three years, finally left his post and took a job covering Europe for the Times.  And since March 2012, Philip Pan, author of the amazing Out of Mao’s Shadow which details the growing inequalities in China, has been waiting for accreditation from Beijing.   If Higgins’ situation is a guide, Pan should not hold his breath.

Fortunately for the Western public, this attempted censorship has not hurt China coverage.  Hard-hitting stories are still being covered even with the continued visa harassment.

NY Times Reporter, Chris Buckley

But the question remains, will this get worse?  Four reporters in one year alone – Chan, Higgins, Pan and Buckley – have been permanently impacted by the Chinese government’s revengeful visa policies.  Will the Chinese step-up the use of this tool?  Will eventually all New York Times reporters find themselves in Buckley’s boat?

In a country like China, where the domestic media is controlled and censored by the government, the foreign press offers an alternative – and at times more real – perspective of what is happening in China.  This doesn’t just benefit the Western audience but also benefits the Chinese public.  The stories that foreign reporters cover are stories that the Chinese people want to tell and cannot currently tell their own press.

Additionally, given the increasing fluency in English of the Chinese youth, some of them are reading these articles.  On my last visit to China, a Chinese law school student lamented about the recent blocking of the New York Times website and his inability to know what is happening in China.

Finally, some of the exposés that are originally covered by the foreign media are eventually picked up by the Chinese press and produce change.  Melissa Chan filmed her report on China’s black jails in April 2009; in November 2009, a Chinese magazine ran a similar expose.  Last month, a court in Beijing heard a case brought by victims of black jails, signaling perhaps the Chinese government’s willingness to eliminate abusive black jails (in China courts will only hear cases pertaining to certain issues if the government or the Party permits it).

In the United States, the media has often been viewed as the fourth branch of government – the media provides an important level of transparency to our political system.  In a one-party authoritarian country, that transparency can only be provided by the foreign press.  The United States spends millions of dollars of “rule of law” and democracy projects in China.  But supporting the work of foreign correspondents in China, at least verbally, is equally as important a tool to achieve those goals.  As we noted in our July series, it is imperative that the U.S. government publicly address and admonish the Chinese government’s attempt to censor the foreign press through the visa renewal process.

U.S. government officials often lament that with China, there must be closed-door diplomacy; the Chinese take “face” very seriously.  But to the extent that the U.S. government has been conducting this type of diplomacy concerning foreign reporters in China, here’s a news flash – it’s not working.  Things are only getting worse for foreign reporters and as a result, for the Chinese public.  In Melissa Chan’s case, the State Department, through a press person, just said that it was “disappointed” with what happened.  If ever you wanted to give the Chinese government a signal to continue to harass foreign reporters, such a tepid response was likely it.  As a result, it’s vital that a high-up official at the State Department publicly comment on what is happening to Buckley, Pan and countless other foreign reporters in China.  It’s time the U.S. government to publicly articulate one of our key values – that a free press, here a free foreign press, is an important human rights issue.

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* On January 3, 2012, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs broke its silence stating that Chris Buckley’s visa application is still under consideration.  See news report here.  Actually addressing this a good thing for sure, but there will be no step forward until Buckley’s visa is renewed and Philip Pan is finally accredited.  Pressure on the Chinese government should not stop just because of this statement.

But if not the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, Then What?

By , July 18, 2012

Part 3 of a three part series on the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act & foreign journalists in China
(Click here for Part 1; click here for Part 2)

There is a chance that passage of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act could result in China granting visas to U.S. government journalist, but that possibility is slim.  The effects of passage of the Act mentioned in Part 1 – the eradication of the Chinese press in the U.S., an all out visa war, and greater suppression of freedom of the press – are much more likely and not positive.  But the U.S. does not have to sit back and just watch the Chinese government harass and censor their journalists.  Below are some less extreme alternatives that the U.S. government can conduct to express its displeasure with the Chinese government and perhaps change the current situation.

Alternative #1: Raise the Issue When it Happens

The U.S government’s tepid response to Melissa Chan’s unlawful expulsion was a missed opportunity to underscore the U.S.’ commitment to freedom of the press to the Chinese government.  The Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is not necessary if the U.S. government publicly stresses that this is an important issue.  While some may argue that private diplomacy and comments work better with China, the current Administration has publicly censure China when its behavior bucks international human right standards.  As recently as last Tuesday, while on a trip to Mongolia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly criticized China for its lack of freedom for its own people.

Similarly, if freedom of the press means something, after Melissa Chan’s expulsion, the U.S. State Department should have issued an official statement from a high ranking official reprimanding China for unlawfully using the visa process to censor foreign journalist coverage.  Perhaps such a statement would have given Beijing pause and might cause it to change from its current course of conduct.  But a mere statement of “disappoint” permits Beijing to continue harassing foreign journalists and interfering with their coverage by threatening to deny visa renewals.  Rhetoric can make a difference or at the very least serve as a signaling device to Beijing that this is an important issue that the U.S. government is not going to take lightly.

Alternative #2: List the Harassment of U.S. Journalists on its Website

The Foreign Correspondent Club of China (“FCCC”) previously posted their members’ incidents reports and the yearly surveys on their website.  But since February 2011, the FCCC is no longer posting the reports or the surveys because of increasing pressure from the Chinese government.  As Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, told China Law & Policy, the FCCC removed mention of the incident reports because “the [Chinese] Foreign Ministry threatened the FCCC president and other officers with unspecified ‘serious consequences’ if the club continued to make public statements that the government regarded as political. To ensure the club’s continued existence we have since limited our public statements to particularly egregious violations of our journalistic rights and freedoms, such as physical injuries sustained by foreign reporters at police hands and Melissa Chan’s expulsion.”

Ambassador to China Gary Locke - can he help protect US journalists?

The public availability of the incident reports provided an important look into the treatment of foreign journalists in China, including their visa issues.  But with the Chinese government’s censorship of the FCCC, that important information is no longer available and it becomes difficult to know the current situation in Beijing.

But the U.S. Embassy in Beijing can serve this function by posting U.S. journalists’ incident reports.  At the very least, they can list the issues that U.S. journalists are having with the visa process serving two purposes: informing its citizens about the j-visa process and highlighting to the Chinese government that this is a serious matter that the Embassy plans to monitor.  The U.S. Embassy in Beijing does something similar for air pollution; the Embassy has a page dedicated to listing air quality reports every hour.  This webpage has  irked the Chinese government since the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection hosts a similar webpage but usually with more positive air quality numbers, making apparent that someone is not telling the truth.  There is no reason why the same can’t be done with U.S. journalists in China.

Alternative #3: Deny a Visa

But another reason why the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is not necessary – and another tool that can be used to protect our journalists in Beijing – is that the U.S. can deny visas under current law.  The Immigration and Nationality Act provides the executive branch with a list of circumstances, which at times are very vague, where the government can deny a visa.  Section 212(a)(3)(C) allows the State Department to deny a visa if there are adverse foreign policy concerns: “An alien whose entry or proposed activities in the United States the Secretary of State has reasonable ground to believe would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States is inadmissible.”  Within the courts, the executive branch is given almost exclusive deference in immigration and visa decisions.  See Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753 (1972).

If rhetoric does not work with the Chinese government, the U.S. government can threaten to deny a visa to a single Chinese reporter.  This might do the trick without damaging freedom of the press too much.  In “The Visa Dimension of Diplomacy,” Prof. Kevin D. Stringer analyzed the use of visas as a diplomatic tool.  Although Stringer is not keen on the denial of a visa as a sanctioning tool, he does note that on occasion it has produced positive results.  After India unexpectedly conducted nuclear tests in 1998, the U.S. denied a visa to Dr. R. Chidambaram, the Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, who had come to the U.S. multiple times before.

The denial was symbolic but had a larger psychological impact on Indians on work visas or those who wanted to send their children to a U.S. college.; would their visas be denied as well?  How far would the U.S. go?

Similarly, the U.S. government could threaten to deny – or just not process – a visa to a key Chinese reporter.  In February 2012, to much fanfare in China, the Chinese government launched CCTV America, based in Washington, D.C.  A threat to deny a visa to one of their top reporters or directors could put the Chinese on notice that the U.S. is not going to stand for the harassment of U.S. reporters abroad.  Similar to the 1998 India situation, given the large number of political elites’ children who attend college in America, a single visa denial could have a similar psychological impact on influential elites in China.

The U.S. does not have to pass the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act, but it does need to communicate its displeasure with the way foreign correspondents are treated in China.  There are other avenues to do that but one thing is clear, the U.S. government must start raising this issue otherwise things will only continue to deteriorate as it has for the past three years.

To see Part 1, click here; to see Part 2, click here

The Chinese Media Reciprocity Act and Censorship of Foreign Journalists in China

By , July 16, 2012

Part 2 in a three part series on the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act & foreign journalists in China
(For Part 1, click here)

Putting aside the shrill rhetoric surrounding the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act and the fact that it only deals with the harassment of a small segment of U.S. journalists in China (the VOA and RFA reporters), the Act does draw attention to an increasingly problematic issue: the Chinese governments harassment of foreign journalists through the visa process.  It also raises the question: what should the U.S. government be doing about this harassment?

The Visa Renewal Process for Foreign Journalists – a Censoring Tool?

In the past two years, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”) has documented an increasing number of incidents where the Chinese government threatens not to renew a visa or  unnecessarily delays the visa renewal process.  In China, a journalist visa (“j-visa) is only for a year and must be renewed every December.  What should be a routine event has turned into an anxiety-ridden occasion.  In 2011, the FCCC started focusing on the difficulties some of its members experienced in renewing their visas.  A 2011 FCCC  survey reported that 27 foreign journalists waited four months for a visa renewal.  According to Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, the FCCC considers waiting more than three months for a visa for a permanent correspondent excessive (for a temporary correspondent the FCCC believes it should only be a 30 day wait).  Thirteen journalists waited six months for a visa; and for three, their visa applications have been pending since 2009.

For 2012, the numbers have only gotten worse.  In the FCCC’s  2012 survey, released on May 31, close to a third of all respondents (36 out of 111 respondents) reported difficulty with renewing their j-visas or obtaining visas for new colleagues.[1]  Furthermore, the FCCC’s 2012 survey found that 21 of these reporters were told or believed that their visa difficulties were a direct result of their China coverage, demonstrating the Chinese government’s attempt to censor foreign correspondents by threatening their j-visa.  Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, told China Law & Policy that he doesn’t think that these threats and the continued harassment has had a chilling effect on foreign reporters’ China coverage.

It’s true that great and hard-hitting stories still make their way to our shores and maybe we just haven’t hit that tipping point.  But if China increases its pressure on foreign journalists, at what point will they crack and soften their stories?  A loss of a visa, especially for freelance journalists, could easily mean a loss of one’s livelihood.

A Foreign Correspondent Expelled from China: Becoming More than Just a Visa Problem

This past May, the Chinese government took the bold step of kicking out a foreign journalist: Melissa Chan, a U.S. citizen and long-time Al Jazeera English correspondent in Beijing.  The reason for Chan’s expulsion from China?  We don’t know.  The Chinese government has elected not to share that information.  But most speculate that it was a result of the Chinese government’s displeasure with Al Jazeera’s documentary of Chinese forced labor camps, a documentary that Chan played no role in filming and it was produced out of Al Jazeera’s London bureau.  Likely though, Chan’s hard-hitting coverage of official corruption, government land grabs, black jails and other sensitive topics didn’t help her case.  Prior to her expulsion, Chan was already being harassed:  her visa was not renewed for another year, instead she was on three short-term visas, probably to keep her on a “tight leash.”

Al Jazeera English China correspondant, Melissa Chan (photo from Al Jazeera)

Is Chan’s treatment a bell weather for other reporters?  Soon after Chan’s departure, Ford, as then president-elect of the FCCC was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the body which, in conjunction with the Ministry of Public Security, oversees foreign  journalists) and was reassured that Chan’s case was “sui generis.” “I was assured by a Ministry official that Melissa’s case was specific to her and other correspondents had nothing to fear.”  But as Ford went on to muse, the official’s statement only provided so much solace to the remaining correspondents in China; as long as the Chinese government continues to be mum on those specifics and persists in using the visa process as a censorship tool, other foreign correspondents don’t know if they have crossed that line that Chan crossed until they actually cross it.

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, one reason to oppose the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is a belief in freedom of the press.  One would think that the U.S. government would have a particular interest in guaranteeing that journalists around the world – especially foreign journalists abroad – are left unharassed and are free to report their stories.  But the U.S.’ reaction to the expulsion of one of its citizens questions this commitment.  In a single press briefing, Department of State deputy spokesperson, Mark C. Toner, expressed the Department’s “disappointment:” “I would just say that we’re disappointed in the Chinese Government – in how the Chinese Government decided not to renew her accreditation.  To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China.”

True Chan was not working for a U.S. media organization and instead was working for Al Jazeera, and her expulsion came soon after the difficult negotiation on Chen Guangcheng, but regardless, one would think that the U.S. government, the stalwart of press freedom, would have been more than just “disappointed.”  Even if the U.S. government did not want to raise the issue of an Al Jazeera reporter, it could have used Chan’s expulsion to highlight the case of Andrew Higgins, one of the Washington Post’s China correspondent who since 2009 has been waiting for a j-visa to enter China.

If freedom of the press is so important, how can we just sit back and watch the Chinese government toy with and try to influence any U.S. reporter, even one working for private news outlets?  What can the U.S. do to try to change this situation in China?

To be concluded in Part 3


[1] The FCCC’s “2012 FCCC Correspondent Member Survey Highlights” is on file with China Law & Policy.  To obtain a copy, please email fcccadmin@gmail.com.

What is Wrong With the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act

Part 1 of a three part series on the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act & foreign journalists in China

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the “Chinese Media Reciprocity Act” (H.R. 2899), a bill introduced last fall by Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California.   The Act attempts to combat China’s restrictive visa policies for U.S. government-employed journalists.  Instead of issuing journalist visas to most if not all Chinese journalists in the U.S., the Act would require that the number of visas issued to Chinese government journalists be identical to the number of visas that China issues to U.S. government reporters.

In reality, the impact of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is anything but reciprocal.  The U.S. has two government-sponsored news agencies in (or trying to get in) China: Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA); the remaining U.S. journalists in China work for private media outlets.  China on the other hand, with its state-owned media, has 13government-run agencies and over 800 media personnel working in the U.S.  If passed, within 30 days, the State Department would be required to revoke the number of visas issued to Chinese journalists to equal the number of visas issued to American government journalists in China which currently stands at 2.  The Act would all but eliminate a Chinese media presence in the U.S.

Given its extreme and inflexible nature, the Act shouldn’t be passed.  But it does highlight a truly important issue: the harassment, censorship and expulsion of foreign journalists from China and raises the issue of what the U.S government should do about it.

The Act has many problems.  First, it solely focuses on China, giving it the air of a Chinese Exclusion Act.  China is not the only country which denies foreign journalists visas – a quick review of the worst countries for journalists on Reporters Without Borders’ website reveals that Burma, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea similarly deny foreign journalists visas.  But this Act is exclusively about China.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher

Second, the rhetoric by the Act’s proponents leads one to believe that they are more motivated by a Cold War mentality than a true concern about U.S. journalists’ access in China.   Rep. Rohrabacher’s testimony in support of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act is filled with red herrings concerning Confucius Institutes, billboards in Times Square, and the Chinese purchase of AMC movie theaters (in order to flood the US with Chinese propaganda films).  Testimony by John Lenczowski focused more on Russian spies in the US Embassy in Moscow during the Cold War than the actual treatment of U.S. journalists in China today.

Third, passage of the Act could lead to even worse retaliation by China.  China repeatedly harasses the two VOA reporters in China (see Nick Zahn’s testimony, p. 5-6) and it has consistently denied visas to RFA reporters.  Perhaps the most famous incident was when the Chinese government rescinded the RFA reporters’ visas only days before they were to accompany President Clinton on his 1998 trip to China.

But other major media outlets, like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and CNN, just to name a few, have reporters on the ground in China doing some hard hitting reporting.  Yes these reporters are also often harassed and are often forced to wait months for a visa or are threatened by the Chinese security apparatus that visa renewal will be denied (one of the Washington Post’s China reporters – Andrew Higgins – has been waiting for a visa since 2009, forced to report from Hong Kong).   But in general, most reporters are able to renew their visas and solid reporting from China is able to make it to our shores.  But some, like the Committee to Protect Journalists, warn that passage of the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act could lead to an all out visa war, resulting in China denying a greater number of visas and exacerbating an already tense situation for foreign journalists there.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, is this who we want to be?  A free and vibrant press has been a central tenet of the United States; it was crucial to the success of the American Revolution, is encapsulated within the First Amendment, and is rarely if ever abridged.  As Americans, we understand that the press is a building block to creating a government truly accountable to its people; unfettered press access is an important goal in and of itself.

In recent years, China has seen some developments in a more professionalized and freer press.  Yes, the Chinese press still has to take its most of its cues from the Chinese government, but there has been some development in more real reporting (see Susan Shirk’s Changing Media, Changing China).  But by essentially eradicating the Chinese press from U.S. shores, the Chinese Media Reciprocity Act undermines our goals of this burgeoning freedom of the press in China.  Even the reporters harassed by the Chinese government do not agree with such actions.  Peter Ford, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”), told China Law & Policy that they “do not support efforts to restrict press freedom in one country in an effort to improve press freedom in another.  We remain committed to freedom of the press.”

But all the attention surrounding the Act raises the issue of Beijing’s treatment of foreign journalists.  Is there anything the U.S. can do to change what appears to be the Chinese government’s increased harassment of foreign journalists?

Continued in Part 2

Tipping Point in Censorship?

Have we hit a tipping point?

Last November I attended a fascinating talk by Rebecca MacKinnon, guru on all things censored and author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom. At the talk, MacKinnon’s focus was on the Chinese corporations that do China’s censorship bidding. MacKinnon noted that China’s internet regulations are not enforced by the government; rather the companies that manage China’s various and extremely active blogs and microblogs are responsible for enforcing China’s online censorship laws and regulations. Yes such censorship leaves these companies’ customers angry, but its worth it for what they get in exchange: an exclusive monopoly that keeps out more sophisticated players like Facebook and Twitter.

But MacKinnon hypothesized that at some point it won’t be economically worth it for these companies to continue to censor. MacKinnon highlighted the complete internet shutdown that occurred in Xinjiang province in 2009 for the entire year. That shut down harmed the local and regional economy. But even that wasn’t enough to cause these internet companies to push back against the government’s internet censorship and control. Instead, MacKinnon mused about the impact that such efforts would have in a more populous region or city, say like Shanghai.

And on Monday it looked like perhaps China reached that tipping point. Monday, June 4, marked the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, a sensitive date for China’s Communist Party. On Monday, the Shanghai stock market closed 64.89 points down. But 64.89 is not just any number, it’s the numerical translation of June 4, 1989. As reported in the New York Times, searches for “Shanghai stock,” “Shanghai stock market” and “index” were censored in response to this coincidence.

But can you imagine a country that censors words that are important for commerce? These aren’t searches for “Chen Guangcheng” or other Chinese activists; those searches would pull results that are obviously about human rights. But searches for business terms? To censor that in a market relies on the speed and effectiveness of the internet is not just plain wacky but bad for business.

Obviously the Shanghai stock market censorship is not yet the tipping point as internet censorship is still alive and well. But it makes me wonder, are we getting closer? Is what MacKinnon speculated – that eventually the goals of the Chinese government and of the Chinese internet companies will diverge – inevitable? To the extent that you buy into the hypothesis that the Chinese people have “made a deal” with their government – that in exchange for economic security the Chinese will give up some of their political freedoms – is it inevitable that that deal will be broken? The Shanghai stock market debacle hints that maybe in the end its the Party’s own paranoid censorship that will be its death knell.

This is Not Your Daddy’s China – Or Is It?

By , November 24, 2011

Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Rebecca MacKinnon do not seem to have a lot in common: one is a young, blonde woman born in 1960s America and focused on internet freedom; the other is an older, grayed man born in pre-war Poland who might not really know what a blog is let alone a “microblog.”

But at last week’s China Town Hall event – sponsored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) and hosted by Fordham Law School – the general gist of each speaker’s message boiled down to the same point: don’t expect China to follow historical trends; this is a different time, a different place, a different beast and the U.S. needs to quickly recognize this reality.

Brzezinski on China: China is Not Nazi Germany

Brzezinski started the live webcast portion (watch the webcast here) with a very brief synopsis of his role in helping to normalize relations with China during the Carter administration.  The briefness of this interlude proved to be a pity and not just because the question and answer portion ended up being sort of lacking.

The history of U.S.-China relations after Nixon’s impeachment remains rather unknown to many.  In fact, I would venture to guess that few understand that Nixon’s 1972 visit to China did not normalize relations; normalization was left for another day, and as Brzezinski explained at the China Town Hall, President Ford didn’t believe that he had the mandate to transfer diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.  As a result of what appeared to be the U.S.’ waffling, relations between the U.S. and China worsened.  However, President Carter’s election in 1976 provided for a new chance at dialogue and with the help of Brzezinski, the U.S. and China eventually normalized relations in 1979 (Prof. Jerome Cohen wrote an interesting essay on the role of Ted Kennedy in normalizing relations – see here).

For the remainder of the webcast – the Q &A portion – Brzezinski proved to be more of a sphinx, giving short,

Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter - 1979

somewhat cryptic answers to most of the questions.  As a result, there was plenty of time for question.  Perhaps it was a result of the fact that on the same day as the Town Hall – November 16 – President Obama was in Australia announcing the establishment of the U.S. base in that country or perhaps it is what is on most people’s mind, but most of the questions of the night focused upon China’s military ambitions and the U.S.’ appropriate military role in Asia.

For Brzezinski, the U.S.’ current posture toward Beijing – one where China is viewed as a threat – is troubling.  According to Brzezinski the U.S. is “pre-judging” the relationship: the U.S. has already determined that China will be an aggressive power and we must develop and deepen our alliances with other countries.  But we don’t know if that is true – we don’t know that China is or will be a Nazi Germany; while our guard should be up, we should be open to maintaining a good relationship with China and not isolate it from the rest of Asia.

Brzezinski made an interesting point and supported his argument that China is not as much of threat as we think it is with evidence – China’s military is light years away from being able to compete with ours and China maintains an ambivalent relationship with both Russia and Iran.

But Brzezinski didn’t address some of the very real pressures on the Chinese government to increase its saber-rattling: the military still maintains an extremely powerful role in running the Chinese government and to a large extent, often runs itself; China has become more bellicose in terms of its ability to control portions of the South China Sea; and the lack of communication between the U.S. and Chinese militaries can allow for a small incident to rapidly escalate into a full-blown international one.

In response to one question about rising nationalism in China, Brzezinski pretty much brushed it off (although he did make the important point that the U.S. is guilty of it too vis-à-vis China).  While he recognized that it could be a legitimate concern, this nationalism has not been accompanied by anti-American sentiment.  This just seemed shocking to me. And, as someone who was in China soon after the U.S.’ accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, plain wrong.  Anti-American sentiment at that time was running high, enflamed by the Chinese media and communicated by many of the Chinese students I met on the Peking University campus that summer and early fall.  The anti-American sentiment quickly died down after the U.S. agreed to China’s accession to the W.T.O. in November 1999 but there have been other flare-ups since then.

While Brzezinski is right to state that our approach to China shouldn’t necessarily be guided by outdated models of Nazi Germany or even the Cold War, there are some aspects of China’s rise that precisely because they are different from what we have seen in the past, should cause us to be more on guard.

Rebecca MacKinnon – China’s Internet is Not Egypt’s Internet; It’s A Lot Worse

Sites That Don't Make it Through the Great Firewall

Certainly for Rebecca MacKinnon, the live local speaker at the Fordham Law School event, China’s increased nationalism is something on her mind, especially as it pertains to the internet.

It’s Not All About the Great Fire Wall

MacKinnon started her extremely enlightening talk on internet freedom in China by tearing down some American misconceptions.  For most Americans, there is this belief that the “Great Fire Wall” of China is what is preventing internet freedom in China.  It is this firewall that completely blocks out websites like Facebook, Twitter, and although not mentioned by MacKinnon herself, China Law & Policy, from being accessible in China.  U.S. policy toward internet freedom in China, and the money spent on such efforts, has largely – and mistakenly in MacKinnon’s view – been exclusively directed toward tearing down this firewall; finding ways for activists to circumvent the wall by accessing the internet through a non-China based virtual private network (VPN).

But the Great Fire Wall of China is only one layer in the Chinese government’s web of online censorship.  What are more damaging to internet freedom are the vast layers of censorship that occur on the Chinese side of the Great Fire Wall.

Internet Companies Do the Government’s Censoring

Because of the Great Fire Wall, social networking, blogging and microblogging is dominated exclusively by Chinese companies.  Like in America, Chinese citizens can post their thoughts to the internet and communicate with other citizens.  But unlike in America, anything that gets too political will be taken down by the hosting company.  Through various cyber laws and regulations it is these internet companies – like Baidu and Alibaba – that carry out the government’s censorship of the internet.

If these companies don’t follow the weekly guidance on what content must be taken down, their licenses to run an

Not Just the Police Watching You....

internet company could be revoked, putting them out of business.  Thus, under Chinese law, the government outsources its censorship: it issues directives but the internet companies are the ones that are liable if specific content makes it through.

Those companies who do their job well don’t just stay in business, but are rewarded for their vigilant censorship.  Every year, the Chinese government awards those internet companies who did the best job censoring a “Self Discipline Award.”  And the government is not being ironic.

Because censorship does take time and because the guidance on what content must be removed is an ever moving target, some things do make it past the censors.  MacKinnon provided a recent example: the July 2011 Wenzhou train collision.  Immediately after the crash, the government issued a statement saying that a train in Wenzhou was struck by lightning.  However, with smart phones, many bystanders quickly posted pictures of a train on its side, people obviously injured by something other than lightening, quickly debunking the government’s initial response.  That use of the internet but the general public resulted in the government being held accountable and having to report the truth.

But for MacKinnon, these types of opportunities are largely reserved for natural disasters or sudden accidents – things that happen so suddenly that the government hasn’t issued an order to the internet companies about whether such content should be removed.

What’s Not Censored?  Nationalism and the 50 Cent Party

MacKinnon also made an interesting point about the inequities of censorship in China.  It would be one thing if all political speech was censored in China, but it is not.  Instead, only that speech that could potentially harm the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is censored; speech glorifying the CCP is provided free reign.

In fact, pro-Chinese government and pro-CCP speech is often ghost-written by the 50 Cent Party, government-hired internet commentators who get paid to post positive content about the Chinese government and the CCP.  So while the government is able to stamp out anti-CCP thoughts, it is also able to bolster its own image on the internet.

Make No Mistake, China is Not Egypt

For those who think that the Arab Spring is coming to a city in China sometime soon, MacKinnon’s message was clear: oh hell no.  With such tight controls over the internet, there is no way that a dinner party, let alone a revolution, could be organized through social media like it partially was in Tunisia and Egypt.  In the Middle East, there is enough space on the internet to meet like minded people and organize events.  In China, that space does not exist as the government maintains a tight grip on speech.

MacKinnon offered one example of the danger in organizing events through the internet or related to free speech on the internet.  In 2005, a group of Chinese bloggers organized a national conference in China about blogging – sort of like a NetRoots Nation here in the United States.  It gives a chance for bloggers who have communicated virtually to meet each other and provides an opportunity to learn to become a better blogger.

The conference was held again in 2006 and started to become an annual event.  Many bloggers began to wonder, is the internet a “special political zone” in the way that Shenzhen was a “special economic zone” in the 1980s?  The answer turned out to be no.  The last conference was held in 2009; in 2010, authorities went to the leaders of the conference and instructed them not to hold another conference.

Will The Chinese Internet Ever Be Free?

For MacKinnon change rests almost exclusively in the hands of the CEOs of China’s internet companies.  Right now, they have a good deal.  They have an exclusive monopoly on the internet.  Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, doesn’t have to worry about competition from Twitter, and Renren, the major social networking site, doesn’t have to ever think about losing costumers to Facebook.  In exchange for such exclusivity, what’s a little censorship between friends?

But MacKinnon wonders if there will come a point where censorship becomes economically too costly for these companies.  If it does, then there could be a change.  What would cause that change?  That seems unclear.  In 2009, because of rioting in the predominately Muslim autonomous region of Xinjiang, the Chinese government took the drastic step of completely shutting down the internet in Xinjiang.  That shutdown didn’t last for a few days or a week.  That shutdown lasted for almost a year.  This wasn’t just an inconvenience; it harmed the local and regional economy.  But even this type of drastic action still hasn’t changed any of the internet companies’ approaches to censorship.  But perhaps if more of these outages happen or happen in a more populous location, Chinese internet companies might start wondering if aligning themselves with the Chinese government is really worth it.

As of right now, MacKinnon believes that the Chinese government has found a way to maintain its “Networked Authoritarianism.”   Chinese leaders at all levels use the internet to get their message out and there are efforts to have broadband reach all areas of China; this is not a government necessarily afraid of the internet; on some level, it has established the structure in place that allows it to use it to its advantages without any of the danger of dissent.  On some level, the Chinese government makes a mockery of the generally accepted idea that the internet is perhaps one of the most democratizing tools every created.

Instead, the Chinese government provides a model for other countries on how authoritarianism can in fact survive the internet.  The stories of Tunisia and Egypt do not hold true for China.

But as MacKinnon closed out her talk, just when you think you know what will happen in China, something surprises you.

Those interested in learning more about internet freedom should check out MacKinnon’s amazing blog RConversation or pick up her forthcoming book – Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom – when it hits stores at the end of January 2012.

Slip Slidin’ Away: Google in China

Google's Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond

Google's Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond

Originally Posted on The Huffington Post

The long, publicly drawn-out saga of Google in China continues.  And at this juncture, one wonders why.  On Monday, Google’s Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, posted a blog entry to share with the world Google’s new troubles in China.  Drummond announced that in order to acquiesce to Chinese officials’ demands and guarantee that the Chinese government renew Google’s Internet Content Provider (ICP) license, Google would change certain aspect of its Chinese website, Google.cn.  This certainly is a different Google than the one just six months ago that had its guns blazing.

Back in January, after Google’s servers were hacked by an attack likely originating in China, Google announced that it would no longer censor its results on its Chinese search engine, Google.cn.  While the two issues – hacking and censorship – seem to have little to no relation to each other, Google successfully played up its moral stance against China’s internet censorship in the West and became the darling of the Western press for maintaining its motto of “don’t be evil.”  A few questioned Google’s sincerity (see here) and wondered if Google would have taken such a moral stance if its withdrawal from the largest internet market in the world had a greater impact on its profits.  In general however, Google was heralded as upholding freedom of speech and human rights.

But Google’s pull-out from China did not mean that it shut down its Google.cn site.  Instead, in order to conform with Chinese law and also with Google’s promise not to censor search results, Google redirected all traffic from Google.cn to Google.com.hk, a website locate in Hong Kong and thus not subject to the censorship rules of the Mainland.  Visitors to Google.cn would be automatically redirected to Google.com.hk.  But this doesn’t mean that a search on Google.com.hk, when conducted from the Mainland, is free from censorship.  The results from such a search are in fact censored – it’s just that Google itself is no longer doing the censoring; instead, China’s internet technology does the censoring (for an explanation of the different types of internet censoring in China see here).

Now though, Google’s make-shift solution has raised the ire of the Chinese government and Google fears that its ICP license is at stake.  Under the Telecommunications Regulations of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), every website that operates inside the borders of China, must obtain an ICP license.  Thus, Google.cn, which is housed within China’s borders, needs an ICP license; but Google.com, the U.S.-based search engine which is accessible on the Mainland, does not need an ICP license since it is housed within the U.S.  If the Chinese government does not renew Google.cn’s license, then the site will be shut down and will no longer exist.

What the Chinese government doesn’t like, at least according to Google, is the automatic redirection of traffic from Google.cn to Google.com.hk.  So to appease the Chinese regulators, Google has changed it so that there is no longer an automatic redirection; instead, Google has added a line on Google.cn stating in Chinese that the site has been moved to Google.com.hk and the if the user clicks anywhere on the page, he or she will be redirected to Google.com.hk.  So instead of an automatic redirection, it now takes a simple click.  According to Google, it needs Google.cn so that Mainland users will know that they can access a Chinese-language search language at Google.com.hk (Mainland users can in fact access Google.com, the U.S.-based search engine, but its interface is in English, not Chinese).

But will this change make a difference?  While technically there is a distinction between an automatic redirection to the Hong Kong-based site and a quick click of the mouse on the Google.cn website to get there, in reality it is more of a distinction without a difference.  Will the Chinese government find this distinction acceptable and renew Google’s license?  Or will it reject Google’s license renewal application?

If the Chinese government does reject Google’s ICP license renewal application where does this leave Mainland internet users?  Basically in the same place that they are in now, causing one to ask Google, what’s the big deal?  Contrary to popular belief, Chinese internet users have access to Google.com, the U.S.-based site, as well as direct access to Google.com.hk.  A search by a Mainland user on either of these sites will produce the same Chinese government-censored results.  If the Chinese government rejects Google’s application, the only difference will be that Google.cn, the Mainland-based site, will be shut down and will no longer exist.  So unless a Mainland internet user knows to go to Google.com or Google.com.hk, he or she will likely turn to the Chinese-based search engine, Baidu.com.  Since the start of “the troubles” between Google and the Chinese government in January, Baidu has increased its market share of internet users, from 58.4% to 64% of the market.  Google’s market share in China, with the automatic redirection to Google.com.hk, has decreased from 35% to 30% (see Rebecca MacKinnon, June 30, 2010 Congressional Testimony, p. 7).

Although Google’s loss of the search engine market share in China was likely inevitable since Baidu benefits from its close and special relationship with the Chinese government, it’s still important for Google to maintain its Google.cn website in China and have some sort of a toe-hold in the country for future development especially.  Currently only around a third of China’s population are internet users, causing internet companies to salivate at the potential profits in China.  Other Google applications, like Gmail and Google Earth (Google’s mapping tool), could also bring in huge amounts of revenue.  Google Earth is particularly promising since China has begun to make efforts to provide its population with accurate online maps.  In fact, this past June, Google applied for approval as one of China’s officially-licensed internet mapping companies.  But as of July 1, such approval does not look likely.  The Chinese State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping just issued a list of mapping companies it deems of “high quality,” a prerequisite for approval.  Google is not listed.

Google potentially has a lot to lose, at least profit-wise, by continuing to take a hard-line against the Chinese government, and that might explain its current change in demeanor and willingness to acquiesce to the Chinese government.  But Google’s attention to its business interest should not come as a shock; in fact, that’s likely what caused it to pull-out of China in the first place. A   corporation’s raison d’être is to maximize profits for its shareholders.  Regardless of what Google might say — that its goal is to “not do evil” — it is ultimately responsible, under law, to its shareholders.  And that’s the way it should be.  Society should not rely on corporations to act as stand-ins for its values.  It is the role of governments, individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to advocate on behalf of human rights and society’s moral values.  Corporations are not there to police themselves; others must do it for them.  Individuals and NGOs have the ability to shine the media spotlight on corporations’ morally-offensive behavior, calling for boycotts and effectively raising the economic cost of conducting undesirable business practices.

Governments can and should pass laws that are economically punitive to corporations that conduct morally-offensive

Tiananmen Square Protests, Spring 1989 - before the Government Crackdown

activities, making such actions too high of an economic cost to that company.  In fact, in terms of internet and technology, the U.S. already has such regulations.  Known as the Tiananmen Sanctions, and passed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, Congress can deny export licenses to those U.S. companies that sell “crime control and detection instruments and equipment” to China (Congressional Research Service, “China: Economic Sanctions,” p. 2).  But these sanctions are never used.  U.S. companies like Cisco, Oracle and Motorola have provided Chinese state security forces with the technology necessary to police the internet.  Aside from a few articles in the U.S. press, these transactions have received little to no censure.

China’s internet censorship should not be condoned.  But Google is not the champion of our moral values, nor should it be asked to be.  The responsibility lies with us, through our elected officials and through our own actions.  But so far it appears that society is more willing to hide behind the mask of Google’s actions, seeing its pull-out from China as some moral victory instead of a business dispute.  This is unfair to Google, detrimental to the Chinese people and undermines the values which we hold dear.

Bob Dylan & China – Talkin’ CCP Paranoid Blues

By , April 5, 2010

Bob Dylan profileIn creating this blog, I never thought I would have the opportunity to write about my two favorite things in a single post.  But the two forces that have likely most influenced my life have now finally converged

Bob Dylan is banned in China.

In perhaps one of the most bizarre moves of censorship in recent memory, China’s Ministry of Culture denied Dylan permission to play in Shanghai and Beijing later this month.  It would be his first concert on the Mainland.  Jeffrey Wu of Brokers Brothers Herald, Dylan’s Asia promoters, speculated that the refusal is likely a result of the Chinese government’s fear that Dylan would say something controversial at his concert.  Ever since Icelandic singer Bjork screamed “Tibet!  Tibet!” after singing a song entitled “Declare Independence” during a concert in Beijing in 2008, Chinese government officials have been leery of singers that might be too political Wu told the Guardian.  Evidently, no one in the Chinese Ministry of Culture has been to a Dylan concert lately.  Because if they had, they would realize that even if Dylan said something controversial, no one would be able to understand it.

While the Chinese government’s fear of Dylan largely reflects the fact that

Late 1960s - a more subversive Dylan

Late 1960s - a more subversive Dylan

they are 40 years behind the times, I actually find their refusal sort of quaint.  To say I am a Dylan fan is a bit of an understatement; disciple might be a more apt term.  But I came to Dylan late, the early 90s, a point where Bob Dylan no longer signified the counter-culture which he sings about in his pre-1972 works.  Today, Dylan has become synonymous with the American mainstream culture, winning an Oscar (which he proceeded to bring with him to every show), singing for the Pope (no other than “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”), releasing a Christmas album, and selling the rights to some of his most memorable songs to various corporations for their commercial use.  I’ve never known first-hand the fiery, irreverent Dylan of my parent’s generation; instead I’ve only experienced it vicariously through the music.

Until today.  With the Chinese government’s belief that Dylan is too subversive for the Chinese audience I finally feel vindicated – I am listening to true a rebellious musician; not a 68 year old man who no longer articulates very clearly and sort of wears funny-looking clothes.  So although I don’t think Dylan is really a threat to the Chinese government –  many Chinese people are not that into Dylan (every time I have enthusiastically given a Dylan mix to a Chinese friend, the response is the polite mention that his voice isn’t very melodic) and it has been a while since any of Dylan’s thought-dreams if seen would likely cause him to end up in a guillotine – I think it’s great that the Chinese government still sees Dylan as a protest singer able to undermine its rule.  It’s so 1960s.

Google & China: Is it Really About Censorship?

By , March 30, 2010
Is it St. George or Google that Slays the Dragon?

Is it St. George or Google that Slays the Dragon?

Google has become the Western media’s new Saint George.  With its pullout from China last week and its refusal to submit to the Chinese government, Google slew the dragon of censorship, or at least that is the story being marketed by the press.

But if we look back to Google’s announcement from January 12, 2010, the catalyst of Google’s troubles in Beijing had little to do with censorship.  Instead, what initiated Google’s eventual withdrawal from China was the hacking attack of its computer infrastructure and the theft of valuable intellectual property.  Absent this attack, would Google have left China?  How did we go from a cyber-attack to a principled stance on censorship and why?  And is relying on Google to promote human rights a good thing?

Don’t Be Evil….Unless it Doesn’t Correspond with Shareholders’ Interests

Google claims that its informal motto of “don’t be evil” is a central pillar of its corporate core values.  But in reality, its motto can only be applied to the extent that it does not conflict with shareholders’ interest.

Google is a publicly traded company and as such, its primary duty to is to its shareholders, usually achieved through the maximization of profits.  This isn’t just a precept of sound business; it is an actual requirement of the law.  In the U.S., directors and officers of a corporation have certain fiduciary duties toward the corporation’s shareholders; if an officer or director acts in a way that breaches these duties, shareholders may bring an action against the board of directors and the officers.   This is to guarantee that the directors and officers act in good faith toward a corporation’s shareholders and make decisions based upon reasonable business interests and not upon personal ones.

Before Google made its January 12 announcement, rest assured that it probably checked with legal counsel to guarantee that shareholders could not bring a suit against it for violating fiduciary duties.  Most likely someone wrote a memo analyzing the merits of shareholders’ potential claims against Google for pulling out of the largest internet market in the world.

The current China internet market totals around 348 million users, more than the population of the United States but Google profitsless than a third of China’s potential internet population of 1.3 billion people.  With such an untapped potential, even if Google maintained its 33% market share of the Chinese search market, it could potentially reach 429 million people.

Can walking away from a market that potentially could be that big ever be justified to shareholders on the grounds of Google’s censorship?

Likely not.  A rational shareholder purchases shares of Google not because of its founders’ stance on censorship in China but more for high return on its equity investment; in other words, profits through increased share price.

So how does Google get away with avoiding a shareholder lawsuit?

First, Google’s foray into China resulted in marginal benefits for the company.  Google did not enter the Chinese market with its Chinese search engine google.cn until January 2006 (to understand the difference between google.cn and google.com see CL&P’s previous article).  However, prior to 2006, Chinese internet users were able to access the U.S.-based search engine, google.com.  At the end of 2005, just through the use of the U.S.-based google.com, Google already had 27% of the Chinese search engine market.  Fast-forward to 2010, four years after it launched its censored Chinese search engine, Google was only able to raise its market share six percentage points to 33%.  Even with its withdrawal from the Chinese mainland, Chinese internet users will still have access to Google either through its U.S.-based search engine, google.com, or its newly established Hong Kong-based search engine, google.com.hk.  Thus, Google’s market share in China will likely continue to hover around 30%.  So the impact of Google’s withdrawal on its profits is relatively small, staving off a shareholder lawsuit.  If profits in China were higher, would Google still have left?  Maybe not.

Furthermore, the initial reason behind Google’s departure – a cyber-attack – is likely sufficient to justify giving up the domestic China market and the meager increased profits.  Although the cyber-attack has been pushed to the background, it’s actually a pretty big deal.  The attack on Google, which was coordinated with an attack on over 30 other western high tech companies, resulted in the theft of proprietary source code and other intellectual property.  While Google hasn’t openly discussed the extent of the cyber-attack, Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on cyber-espionage, hypothesizes that the Chinese hackers made substantial inroads in obtaining some of Google’s core technologies, namely “how it collects information on users and how it uses it to exploit its [Google’s] market advantage.”  This is information that is core to Google’s success and not something that it wants hackers to be able to access.  Any gains from protecting this information far outweighs the losses of shutting down its Chinese search engine.

Cyber-attacking or Playing the Art of Warcraft?

Cyber-attacking or Playing the Art of Warcraft?

Why then the censorship angle?  First, companies don’t really like to announce their vulnerabilities to cyber-attacks.  It’s not surprising that not a single company out of the other 30 that were attacked has stepped forward.  But second, and perhaps slightly cynically, the censorship angle is a marketing bonanza for Google.  Google is the West’s white knight, and although its share price has dropped significantly since it first threatened to leave China, it could have fallen lower absent the positive press surrounding its departure.

And if this was really just about the censorship, why did it take over two months for Google to leave the mainland?  The Chinese government is not about to give up on censorship, as Google executives must be keenly aware of.  So why prolong it?  And if censorship is so abhorrent to Google’s mission, why continue to promote your Android technology on Chinese mobile networks?  Censorship in China is not limited to computers.  A tremendous amount of censorship and surveillance also occurs on mobile devices.

Google’s principle stance against censorship likely has merit and its belief in “don’t be evil” isn’t idle chatter.  But in regards to Google’s withdrawal from China, censorship was neither the only nor the primary reason for its departure.

What’s the Big Deal if Google wants to Say it Left because of the Censorship?

First, by relegating the cyber-attack aspect of the Google-China incident to the background, the press, U.S. government and corporate America avoid confronting what some call the greatest threat to U.S. prosperity.  Adam Segal – in an interview on Digital Age – offered a sobering account of cyber-espionage and the U.S.’ lack of preparation to deal with this increasingly sophisticated threat.  Although previously focused on military secrets, Mr. Segal argued that the threat is increasingly on corporate secrets.  One of the last vestiges of the U.S.’ success lies in its intellectual property.  But cyber-espionage, especially by the Chinese, puts this very much at risk.  Before, companies avoided intellectual property theft by not doing business in China or setting up an office there.  But now, with increasingly sophisticated hacking, companies can no longer avoid the risk that their research and development is vulnerable – the physical location of a company’s R&D does not matter.  According to Rahm Emanuel, “never let a serious crisis go to waste.”  But that is exactly what happened here.  Every discussion about Google – from the press to Capitol Hill to the Administration –  has been about censorship, not about the more serious threat to the U.S.’ national security, cyber-espionage.  Google should certainly be commended for being so open about the Chinese cyber-attack.  Such frankness and cooperation with the U.S. government is important in battling cyber-espionage.  But the U.S. government appears to have largely ignored this opportunity to create a structure or a defense to deal with this issue.

But perhaps more importantly, should we rely on Google, a publicly traded company, to serve as our proxy on issues

Human Rights Attorney, Gao Zhisheng

Human Rights Attorney, Gao Zhisheng

of human rights?  Google was not created to promote human rights; Google’s dual aims are technology innovation and profits.  And there is nothing wrong with that; it’s what corporations do.  But by focusing so much on Google’s decision to leave China and cloaking it in this narrative of a principled stance against censorship, are we excusing our own behavior and inaction?  While the press has focused on Google’s departure from China, a real human rights defender, GAO Zhisheng, has “disappeared” in China.  Detained by the Chinese police last year, Mr. Gao went missing a few months ago with Chinese officials stating that he was “where he should be.”  Only yesterday was he found, alive.  But this story has received little attention from mainstream press and scant consideration from the Administration (the Google incident inspired a speech from the Secretary of State).  What kind of emerging superpower says that one of its citizens is where he belongs?  And what kind of society that is considered a bastion of human rights allows this power to get away with it?

Google & China: Full of Sound & Fury, Signifying Nothing?

By , March 24, 2010

Google ChinaGoogle’s prolonged departure from China was finally completed on Monday with Google moving both its Chinese servers and search engine to Hong Kong.  Since first announcing that Chinese hackers attacked its computer systems and stole some of its source code back in January, Google has left the world in suspense, avowing to leave mainland China unless the Chinese government allowed it to operate an unfiltered search engine.

But asking the Chinese government to stop censoring the internet is like asking the human race to give up oxygen.  Internet censorship is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) lifeline.  Spending vast amounts of resources on policing the internet, China has one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated internet filtering systems and has no intention of weakening this system.  If anything, 2009 – with its many politically-charged anniversaries including the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s departure from Tibet, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – has only seen increased internet censorship. For the CCP, an uncensored internet could undermine its control and disrupt the fragile social stability that it works so hard to maintain.

Given the CCP’s fear and its desire to maintain its monopoly on power, it should come as no surprise that Google was not able to negotiate any kind of compromise on internet censorship.  On Monday, Google issued a statement saying that over the past two and a half months, in its discussion with the Chinese government, it has come to realize that “self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement” for the Chinese government.

Google’s Move Changes Nothing in Terms of Internet Censorship

So with its announcement on Monday, Google moved its Chinese search engine operations to Hong Kong.  Its Chinese

David vs. Goliath

David vs. Goliath

search engine, google.cn, now directs users to its new Chinese website, google.com.hk; additionally, Google moved its servers from the mainland to Hong Kong.[1]

So given all the hoopla surrounding Google’s departure from the mainland, the constant news reports and the heralding of Google as the David to China’s Goliath, Google now offers  uncensored search results on the mainland, right?

Wrong.  Little has changed in terms of censorship.

In order to understand how little Google’s move changes anything, it’s important to understand the two levels of censorship in China. A 2006 New York Times Magazine report on this issue gives a good background and is summarized below.

Chinese Law & Required Self-Censorship

Under Chinese law, any private company offering internet services in China must sign a licensing agreement that it will not circulate content on certain taboo subjects.  While the list of these subjects changes on a regular basis, usually included is information on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the banned religious group Falun Gong, and any positive discussions of the Dalai Lama (negative ones are usually okay).

Restricting access to these sensitive subjects is the responsibility of the internet company, and often, to make sure that it is capturing everything and is not in violation of the Chinese government’s vague directives, the companies’ filtering is usually more inclusive than it needs to be.  Through this system, the Chinese government basically outsources its censorship responsibilities to entities that are doing a better job than they likely ever could.

In January 2006, Google, by setting up its Chinese search engine google.cn within China’s borders, became subject to Chinese law and thus signed a licensing agreement agreeing to self-censor.  Any searches performed on google.cn led to censored results.  For example, a search of “Tiananmen” on google.cn only pulled up tourist pictures of the Tiananmen Square; a search on google.com (the U.S.-based search engine) and conducted in the U.S. pulled up multiple images from the 1989 crackdown (see Prof. Don Clarke’s China Law Prof blog for a visual comparison).  This censorship was performed by Google.

The Great Firewall

But self-censoring only works on those companies that set up a server within China.  What about search engines with servers located outside of mainland China and thus not subject to its laws?

That’s where the Great Firewall comes into play.  The Great Firewall is essentially a protective shield that filters search results before they enter China.  Let’s say a Chinese citizen sitting in front of his computer in Beijing wants to read an article in the L.A. Times about the Academy Awards.  His computer reaches out to a server in L.A. to pull this information, but before it can show up on his computer screen in Beijing, it first must be filtered through the Chinese routers that control all information coming into China over the internet.

These routers are like custom officials – only websites permissible under Chinese law will be allowed entry into China and will show up on our Chinese friend’s computer screen.  The router goes through a series of steps.  First, it reads the address of the website – is this website a blacked out site that Chinese citizens can have no access to?  If yes, then the router does not allow our Chinese friend to access any portion of the L.A. Times and it is completely blocked.  Overtly political websites like Human Rights in China, Amnesty International, are completely blocked sites in China; type in the web address and nothing appears.  Also completely blocked are many social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

But if the site isn’t completely blacked out (and I don’t think the L.A. Times is a completely blocked site in China), then

Sandy-B, likely not a threat to Chinese social stability

Sandy-B, likely not a threat to Chinese social stability

the router reviews the article that our Chinese friend wants to read to see if it contains any blacklisted words.  If it does, the article will not be displayed on our friend’s computer in Beijing.  If it doesn’t contain any no-no terms, it will finally appear on his screen and our friend will be able to read the article.  For example, an article about Sandra Bullock winning the Academy Award will likely make it through the Great Firewall (no matter how offensive that might be to fans of Meryl Streep), but an article about the Academy nomination of the Chinese documentary about the Sichuan earthquake, China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, will be blocked.

This is the situation that currently exists for google.com (the U.S.-based search engine) in China.  Google.com is an accessible site in China and can be used to run searches.  However, the searches, which access information on the servers located outside of China, must go through the Great Firewall.  Depending on the web addresses and the content of the web pages requested, some information will make it through the Great Firewall and some will not.  For example, a search of “Tiananmen” on google.com within China, will not produce the same results as a search of Tiananmen on google.com within the U.S.  The China search will pull up little to no information on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.  To the extent that websites discussing the Tiananmen Square protests appears in the search results, these sites are usually not accessible, and clicking on the result will likely produce an error message.

The Great Firewall is not perfect and sometimes information can sneak in.  To the extent that the Chinese government can have private internet companies conduct self-censorship, that is usually a more effective method as well as cheaper (for the Chinese government at least).

Is Google.com.hk Subject to the Great Firewall?

Courtsey of ChinaDigital Times

Courtsey of ChinaDigital Times

The Great Firewall applies to information coming from Hong Kong.  By directing people in China to its new website google.com.hk, with servers located in Hong Kong, all information attempting to come into China will be subject to the Great Firewall.  The results will still be censored.  It’s just that Google is no longer performing the censorship, instead the Great Firewall is.

Articles heralding that “google goes uncensored” are just plain inaccurate.  Google is uncensored to the extent that a search is performed outside of China; but that was the case before Google had its tiff with Beijing.  Any searches conducted on google.com.hk within China, will be filtered and it will likely produce the same filtered results that a search on google.com would produce if performed in China.  Anecdotal information currently coming from China confirms this.

So basically, the situation is the same; nothing has changed.  Perhaps Google’s culpability is less, but censored results in China are still par for the course.  And don’t expect that to change anytime soon.


[1] While a part of China, Hong Kong is not subject to PRC laws, at least in terms of political freedoms.  Instead, Hong Kong, under the arrangement of “One Country, Two Systems,” is governed by its own Basic Law which affords greater protection to freedom of speech

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