For the past two decades the Communist government of China has managed the unique trick of expanding its economy while maintaining its iron grip on the political life of the country. Western businesses have become willing accomplices in Beijing’s tyrannical rule in exchange for access to cheap labor and the world’s largest market. This has created a huge surge in China’s economic growth while solidifying the party’s hold on power. But it appears that one large Western company may have had enough. Yesterday, Google announced that it may soon close its Chinese operation as a result of the government’s attempt to hack into its computer system to penetrate the e-mail accounts of human-rights activists.
This is a reversal for Google, since in order to do business in China it had previously agreed to allow Communist censorship of its site in Chinese. That meant that in China, if you did a Google search for phrases such as “Tiananmen Square massacre” or “Dalai Llama,” the response would come up blank. Google had rationalized that the benefits of Google’s resources to ordinary Chinese would outweigh the deleterious effect of their participation in the regime’s thought-control policies. But the recent attacks on Google’s database — part of an ongoing crackdown on dissent and appeals for democracy in China — from sources that are almost certainly controlled by Beijing have convinced Google that there is no way they can continue to operate as an unwitting ally to the world’s largest tyranny. Google says it will attempt to negotiate an agreement with the government to create an uncensored Internet, but if it fails to obtain satisfactory results, it will close their Chinese offices and shut down Google.cn.
This is an important milestone for Westerners doing business in China. The attacks on Google have shown again that for all the opportunity for profit in that vast nation as its economy has opened up, it still lacks the basic premise for a free-market system: the rule of law. Property rights remain at the mercy of an all-powerful state that reserves the right to suppress any individual, company, or group that threatens its monopoly on power. Individuals and companies can certainly do business in China and make money, but they do so only at the mercy of a vicious authoritarian government.
It isn’t clear whether Google is flexing its libertarian muscles in China because of a decision that competing with the more widely trafficked but also more heavily censored local search engine Baidu is pointless or because it feels that it is strong enough to force Beijing to back down. But no matter what the source of their motivation, it’s apparent that the latest provocations by the Communists have convinced Google’s leadership that they must take a stand. And for that they deserve the applause of all believers in civil liberties and freedom. For too long, the vast forces dedicated to accommodation and appeasement of Beijing have sought to convince Americans that Chinese don’t care about freedom and that we shouldn’t lift a finger to help them obtain it. This attitude has been reflected in the Obama administration’s conscious decision to downplay the issue of human rights in our dealings with China. Such weakness hasn’t earned America China’s help on other issues, such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But it has resulted in a situation where the Communists think they can do virtually anything to the West and get away with it.
Who would have thought that an Internet company like Google, with much to lose, would show more backbone and commitment to freedom than the government of the United States? Is it too much to hope that Washington can take inspiration from Silicon Valley when it comes to China? Let’s hope that Google sticks to its guns on censorship. Whether it wins and forces Beijing to back down or even if it doesn’t, Google has thrown down the gauntlet of liberty to tyrants in a way that should make all Americans proud. It’s also given our elected leaders an example to follow.