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China’s Clever Netizens

Google’s decision last week to stop censoring in China pointed international attention toward netizens, who have become increasingly bold in advocating for human rights and freedoms. These basement bloggers are putting a new spin on a tool long used by political reformists: music. Online music videos criticizing government corruption and censorship are successfully going viral, even as Beijing’s Internet crackdowns continue.

China Digital Times reports on one such video, “My Brother’s at the Bare Bottom,” which is conveniently translated into English on their blog. (The footnotes at the end help an English-speaking reader pick up on the nuances.)

“My Brother’s at the Bare Bottom” is primarily a criticism of Chinese censorship. But it also confronts the politicization of Chinese language. Beijing repeats its calls for “harmonious society,” a euphemistic justification for one-party rule, repression, and censorship. But the Chinese word for “harmonize” sounds the same as the word for “river crab.” This makes the buttery crustaceans irresistible to dissident mockers.

The success of these videos is enough to make Beijing’s censors … ehm, crabby. “Even the most self-censored Chinese search engine Baidu still can find over 29,000 copies of this song, including on one of the nation’s largest news and game portals, Netease,” the Digital Times writes. “If you search the title of the song on Google? Over 830,000 webpages show up.”

YouTube-genre flicks do not pretend to be catalysts for a social uprising; they’re an end in themselves. But while many feature silly cartoons and vulgar wordplay — take for instance “The Song of the Grass Mud Horse,” explained neatly by CNN here — they are not insignificant. We all remember what MTV perpetrated on the radio star.

Call it “Bare Bottom” exposure: the use of entertainment and humor can influence Chinese culture and thus, eventually, Chinese politics. The rowdy irreverence appeals to a broader, younger audience. In short, these music videos are the creation of a citizenry willing to question its government.

Such an attitude can ignite bigger changes eventually. It has happened before. Take, for instance, the trial of the band the Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia, which helped rally momentum for Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77, a precursor to Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08.

A Chinese public willing to think and act independently — even if only online — foreshadows a time when Big Brother could find itself at the bare bottom too.

Google’s decision last week to stop censoring in China pointed international attention toward netizens, who have become increasingly bold in advocating for human rights and freedoms. These basement bloggers are putting a new spin on a tool long used by political reformists: music. Online music videos criticizing government corruption and censorship are successfully going viral, even as Beijing’s Internet crackdowns continue.

China Digital Times reports on one such video, “My Brother’s at the Bare Bottom,” which is conveniently translated into English on their blog. (The footnotes at the end help an English-speaking reader pick up on the nuances.)

“My Brother’s at the Bare Bottom” is primarily a criticism of Chinese censorship. But it also confronts the politicization of Chinese language. Beijing repeats its calls for “harmonious society,” a euphemistic justification for one-party rule, repression, and censorship. But the Chinese word for “harmonize” sounds the same as the word for “river crab.” This makes the buttery crustaceans irresistible to dissident mockers.

The success of these videos is enough to make Beijing’s censors … ehm, crabby. “Even the most self-censored Chinese search engine Baidu still can find over 29,000 copies of this song, including on one of the nation’s largest news and game portals, Netease,” the Digital Times writes. “If you search the title of the song on Google? Over 830,000 webpages show up.”

YouTube-genre flicks do not pretend to be catalysts for a social uprising; they’re an end in themselves. But while many feature silly cartoons and vulgar wordplay — take for instance “The Song of the Grass Mud Horse,” explained neatly by CNN here — they are not insignificant. We all remember what MTV perpetrated on the radio star.

Call it “Bare Bottom” exposure: the use of entertainment and humor can influence Chinese culture and thus, eventually, Chinese politics. The rowdy irreverence appeals to a broader, younger audience. In short, these music videos are the creation of a citizenry willing to question its government.

Such an attitude can ignite bigger changes eventually. It has happened before. Take, for instance, the trial of the band the Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakia, which helped rally momentum for Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77, a precursor to Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08.

A Chinese public willing to think and act independently — even if only online — foreshadows a time when Big Brother could find itself at the bare bottom too.

Read Less

Going Google

Beijing is ready to say good-bye to Google. Wang Chen, China’s State Council Information Office minister, has responded to Google’s principled threat to pull out of China:

Our country is at a crucial stage of reform and development, and this is a period of marked social conflicts … Properly guiding Internet opinion is a major measure for protecting Internet information security. Internet media must always make nurturing positive, progressive mainstream opinion an important duty. Currently, the Internet gives space for spreading rumours and issuing false information and other actions that diminish confidence, and this is causing serious damage to society and the public interest.

Let’s put this retrograde autocratic boilerplate up against this week’s column by China fetishist Thomas Friedman. The multi-Pulitzer Man sounded, characteristically, indistinguishable from a China lobbyist:

All the long-term investments that China has made over the last two decades are just blossoming and could really propel the Chinese economy into the 21st-century knowledge age, starting with its massive investment in infrastructure. Ten years ago, China had a lot bridges and roads to nowhere. Well, many of them are now connected. It is also on a crash program of building subways in major cities and high-speed trains to interconnect them. China also now has 400 million Internet users, and 200 million of them have broadband. Check into a motel in any major city and you’ll have broadband access. America has about 80 million broadband users.

Poor, declining America. The writing is on the wall, isn’t it? A once-great nation is now muddling along with its quaint democratic government, passé freedoms, sub-bullet-speed trains and — the kiss of death for any great civilization — bad motel Internet.

That’s an interesting metric by which to assess superpower status. Friedman might want to put a little more weight on the fact that those 80 million Americans can perform what would constitute a Chinese Miracle: entering “Tiananmen massacre” into a search engine and getting a result. But no. Apparently “the 21st-century knowledge age” is best suited to states that systematically ban knowledge. The important thing is Jetsons-like rail travel. Here’s Friedman’s sci-fi-Wi-Fi obsession on particularly nasty display in a column from last week:

Being in China right now I am more convinced than ever that when historians look back at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will say that the most important thing to happen was not the Great Recession, but China’s Green Leap Forward. The Beijing leadership clearly understands that the E.T. — Energy Technology — revolution is both a necessity and an opportunity, and they do not intend to miss it.

We, by contrast, intend to fix Afghanistan. Have a nice day.

There’s the backward U.S. for you, focusing on terrorism and freedom when the future belongs to trains and laptops.

But what does Friedman do now? Upon his return to the impossibly slow U.S., how does he explain Google’s decision that human rights trump a share of the Chinese market? How does he discuss this without citing an old-fashioned American emphasis on liberty and justice? Whose side will Friedman and other China obsessives take? If other Internet and tech giants (grudgingly) follow, where does that leave his beloved regime?

The truth is that Wang Chen’s statement tells you everything you need to know about China’s supposedly inevitable rise. Beijing doesn’t enjoy enough legitimacy to allow its citizens to hear dissenting opinions. Without the free flow of ideas, China’s citizens will, in turn, remain insufficient to the task of true innovation. Instead, government-backed quasi-corporations will continue to tinker with gadgets from the disco era — bullet trains and solar power. The world’s Tom Friedmans will continue to swoon. Important technological innovation will come, inevitably, in a form few if any have predicted — let alone ranted about for years in the New York Times. And when it comes, it will come from a part of the world where disagreement and tension give birth to genius, not information blockades.

Even as the Obama administration abandons the long-standing American policy of supporting human rights and democracy abroad, other parties take up the torch to heartening effect. That, after all, is what it means to be a superpower: to embrace and offer compelling ideas that resonate in unexpected corners and live in unforeseen contingents. Ideas that, to some extent, do the work of advancing your interests for you. We saw this unfold with Iran’s pro-American democrats, and now we see it in the American corporate sector. Such displays of integrity can’t but shame cynics on their speed trains to magical futures.

Beijing is ready to say good-bye to Google. Wang Chen, China’s State Council Information Office minister, has responded to Google’s principled threat to pull out of China:

Our country is at a crucial stage of reform and development, and this is a period of marked social conflicts … Properly guiding Internet opinion is a major measure for protecting Internet information security. Internet media must always make nurturing positive, progressive mainstream opinion an important duty. Currently, the Internet gives space for spreading rumours and issuing false information and other actions that diminish confidence, and this is causing serious damage to society and the public interest.

Let’s put this retrograde autocratic boilerplate up against this week’s column by China fetishist Thomas Friedman. The multi-Pulitzer Man sounded, characteristically, indistinguishable from a China lobbyist:

All the long-term investments that China has made over the last two decades are just blossoming and could really propel the Chinese economy into the 21st-century knowledge age, starting with its massive investment in infrastructure. Ten years ago, China had a lot bridges and roads to nowhere. Well, many of them are now connected. It is also on a crash program of building subways in major cities and high-speed trains to interconnect them. China also now has 400 million Internet users, and 200 million of them have broadband. Check into a motel in any major city and you’ll have broadband access. America has about 80 million broadband users.

Poor, declining America. The writing is on the wall, isn’t it? A once-great nation is now muddling along with its quaint democratic government, passé freedoms, sub-bullet-speed trains and — the kiss of death for any great civilization — bad motel Internet.

That’s an interesting metric by which to assess superpower status. Friedman might want to put a little more weight on the fact that those 80 million Americans can perform what would constitute a Chinese Miracle: entering “Tiananmen massacre” into a search engine and getting a result. But no. Apparently “the 21st-century knowledge age” is best suited to states that systematically ban knowledge. The important thing is Jetsons-like rail travel. Here’s Friedman’s sci-fi-Wi-Fi obsession on particularly nasty display in a column from last week:

Being in China right now I am more convinced than ever that when historians look back at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they will say that the most important thing to happen was not the Great Recession, but China’s Green Leap Forward. The Beijing leadership clearly understands that the E.T. — Energy Technology — revolution is both a necessity and an opportunity, and they do not intend to miss it.

We, by contrast, intend to fix Afghanistan. Have a nice day.

There’s the backward U.S. for you, focusing on terrorism and freedom when the future belongs to trains and laptops.

But what does Friedman do now? Upon his return to the impossibly slow U.S., how does he explain Google’s decision that human rights trump a share of the Chinese market? How does he discuss this without citing an old-fashioned American emphasis on liberty and justice? Whose side will Friedman and other China obsessives take? If other Internet and tech giants (grudgingly) follow, where does that leave his beloved regime?

The truth is that Wang Chen’s statement tells you everything you need to know about China’s supposedly inevitable rise. Beijing doesn’t enjoy enough legitimacy to allow its citizens to hear dissenting opinions. Without the free flow of ideas, China’s citizens will, in turn, remain insufficient to the task of true innovation. Instead, government-backed quasi-corporations will continue to tinker with gadgets from the disco era — bullet trains and solar power. The world’s Tom Friedmans will continue to swoon. Important technological innovation will come, inevitably, in a form few if any have predicted — let alone ranted about for years in the New York Times. And when it comes, it will come from a part of the world where disagreement and tension give birth to genius, not information blockades.

Even as the Obama administration abandons the long-standing American policy of supporting human rights and democracy abroad, other parties take up the torch to heartening effect. That, after all, is what it means to be a superpower: to embrace and offer compelling ideas that resonate in unexpected corners and live in unforeseen contingents. Ideas that, to some extent, do the work of advancing your interests for you. We saw this unfold with Iran’s pro-American democrats, and now we see it in the American corporate sector. Such displays of integrity can’t but shame cynics on their speed trains to magical futures.

Read Less

Google Grows a Conscience in China. Will Obama?

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.

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.

Read Less




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