How has China reacted to Google's possible withdrawal?

Human rights defenders in the west endorse Google's decision to end China censorship, but what is th

It looks as if Google could end its services in China. The internet giant launched its Chinese-language services in 2006, and has been dogged by controversy over its agreement to censor search results in accordance with Beijing's wishes. But now, in what is being seen as a direct challenge to the Chinese government, Google says it will stop censoring search results.

This is in response to a "sophisticated and targeted" attempt to hack into the email accounts of human rights activists, originating from China. The Chinese government was not mentioned, but it is well known that hackers are sanctioned by the government to probe important organisations.

It is unlikely that the Chinese government will allow the company to continue operations once the filters are removed.

Google's original acceptance of censorship attracted harsh criticism. Critics argued that it went against the company's motto, "Don't be evil", although the firm maintained that it would be more damaging to civil liberties were it to pull out completely.

International human rights groups -- many of which were critical of Google's initial decision to accept Chinese government regulation -- have jumped to endorse the decision. Human Rights Watch said the move was important for human rights online:

A transnational attack on privacy is chilling, and Google's response sets a great example. At the same time, this incident underscores the need for governments and companies to develop policies that safeguard rights.

But what has the reaction been within China? The combination of the language barrier and the very state censorship that has triggered this dispute makes it difficult to tell with any certainty. #GoogleCN is a trending topic on Twitter, but makes for frustrating browsing if you don't read Chinese.

The initial signs, however, are that the Chinese public does not want the search giant to leave. The Wall Street Journal asked users of both its English- and Chinese-language sites to vote on the question: "Should Google leave China?" At last glance, 80 per cent of voters on the English site said Yes. By contrast, 72 per cent on the Chinese site said No. Some readers on the site commented that it would be a "tragedy" if Google left. This split in opinion could demonstrate that, while it is easy for us in the west to pontificate on issues such as the endorsement of censorship by a major company, for those in China, Google (which only partly censored material) was making possible a step towards freedom of speech.

There have been reports that some supporters are camped outside the office in Wudaokou, voicing their support for internet freedom. Shanghaiist features a photo of people laying flowers outside Google's offices; however, 700 jobs will be lost if the company does close its Chinese operation. The website also says that a Chinese translation of the Google statement was "harmonised" very quickly.

The blogger Xiang Ligang (translated here) draws attention to Google's business interests, saying:

I think Google's announcement is basically a kind of psychological warfare and is unlikely to be implemented, otherwise the losing side is Google and the netizen. However, the majority of Chinese internet users will forget this incident in no more than three months and only few people will remember it occasionally, like ripples on a pool of water.

The same website translates some comments from Chinese web users expressing support for Google:

"2 possible outcomes: more freedom or no freedom"

"Baidu [Chinese-run search engine] is a puppet downloading, Google finally stands up"

"I definitely support Google, definitely do not bow to the Celestial Kingdom [Chinese government]."

So, the Chinese reception of the news appears to be bitter-sweet. Beijing recognises the statement being made, but also the possibility that the state censorship machine has the capacity to ensure that, in a few months, Google will be just a distant memory.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times