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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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