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.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

 

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.