Now, if we can consider Google a “smart horse”, and why wouldn’t we, then according to Zhao Qi Zheng, Google will be galloping freely (again) in China before too long. Zhao, a spokesman for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, recently inverted the famous Chinese proverb (WSJ): ‘a good horse will never return to graze on grass it has already passed by’, by noting: “If there is good grass, why give up? A good horse wants to eat good grass. So the horse that returns is a smart horse.” Indeed.
No matter the validity or not of such an analogy, this may be a good moment to introduce the Google founder Sergey Brin’s recent on stage interview at the 2010 TED Talks (see video below). An interesting interview that gave an insight into the issues that Google have been wrestling with and which more importantly, also offered a small insight into the mind of one of the key figures affected by the wild machinations that are going on beneath keyboards across China and beyond.
The word that sprung to my mind while watching this guy for the first time was impressive. Charlie from Chengdu Living, though commentating on the Hao Hao Report, put it this way: “What really struck me about this clip is how diplomatic Brin comes across. I’m glad he doesn’t see it as a battle between good and evil, but a nuanced struggle to allow China access to the world’s knowledge. After seeing this and one other interview with Brin regarding China, I feel pretty assured that they’re doing the best that anyone can.”
This is certainly an intriguing story: two Internet megaliths seemingly facing off against each other over the issue of information accessibility – the nature of which is perceived quite differently by the two; one all encompassing, one that comes up a little short. However, concentrating solely on this dichotomy between what have generally been portrayed as the light and dark forces of the Internet, perhaps stifles the voices of some of the more disparate contributors to this story- here are a few.
I. China’s Hacker Army
There is an interesting article (‘China’s Hacker Army’) in Foreign Policy that searches under the surface of what this cyber threat from China is actually all about. Is it a coordinated team of thousands who are ready to be activated on a trigger, who when unleashed can cause apocalyptic damage across our information infrastructures? The answer in the FP is not really, more like a highly skilled and fluid group of young patriots, who though uncoordinated outside of their own groups can find they are still furthering a China Cyber war. Individuals and groups whose skill sets are just as likely to be used indirectly as directly by Chinese government agencies.
James A. Lewis, senior fellow for cybersecurity and Internet policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that: “The hacking scene can be chaotic… There are many actors, some directed by the government and others tolerated by it. These actors can include civilian agencies, companies, and individuals.” While Scott J. Henderson, an intelligence contractor and former U.S. Army linguist, describes how: ”They all have different agendas and different personnel. It’s not as well-coordinated as everyone sitting down in a room and someone saying, ‘You, go write this code.’ ‘You, go write that.’”
II. Publish and Be Deleted
Another interesting aspect of this Cyber debate is the issue of on-line censorship of published material and within it the reality of self-censorship by website proprietors, for all intents and purposes in the name of survival. This extract, from what is actually an incisive article (‘Publish and Be Deleted‘) from the Global Times, dwells upon this issue:
“Self-censorship is the rule of survival that prevents popular websites from being shut down, Zoe Wang, a veteran website developer told the Global Times. I can understand an author being outraged when his post gets deleted, but it’s even harder to operate a website as I have to suffer the humiliation of supervisory organs and handle all the criticisms coming from users,” she said. How can you hope to pay your staff or maintain your users’ statistics if the website is shut down all because of one sensitive post? You can never relax,” said the small website operator. You’re always keeping your phone switched on and waiting for that emergency call from the authorities requiring deletion of a post.”
*The second point Zoe Wang makes in the article concerns the fact that there is an absence of any clear rules about what posts should be deleted. If we add this point to the fact above that the hacking community exists as a wild network that can be directly and indirectly used by government agencies, we can get a clearer understanding of how these processes really manifest themselves in China. They do so seemingly in the minds of the participants; a result of patriotic tendencies and on the basis of concern over potential consequences, and not necessarily from explicit government actions. And therein lies the crux of all this, an embedded societal nature rather than simply a highly coordinated and focused government policy, at least not in this domain. Again from the same Global Times article:
‘Li Yong Gang, a professor of Internet politics from Nanjing University, in his newly published book Our Great Firewall: Expression and Governance in the Era of the Internet [notes]: “As a result, it’s difficult to draw a line when operators and Web users censor, apart from the well-known restricted field of political issues,” he wrote. “There are more than 10 government organs entitled to supervise the Internet,” Li said. “This inevitably gives rise to conflicts, he believes. Chinese may criticize the evils of society, but at the same time they feel like participants. In fact the Great Firewall is rooted in our hearts as so little ‘harmful information’ will ever come to light thanks to individuals’ self-discipline and website operators’ self-censorship,” [he concluded.]
III. China Can’t Control the Net Forever
Emily Parker’s article,(‘China Can’t Control the Net for Ever‘) in the Guardian Newspaper highlights however, the role of progressive technologies in creating counter points to standard accessibility issues. Recognizing, as in the world of R&D itself, the best way to stay ahead of the game or in this sense the censors, is to innovate; create technologies and means of disseminating information that are not so easy to control:
‘‘Twitter, which lets people send bite-size messages to large groups, allows the Chinese to quickly disseminate urgent news or even uncomfortable facts. Twitter can create a faster information flow than any official agency,” says Michael Anti, a journalist in Beijing. When I asked [Blogger Peter] Guo how the outside world could make Twitter more accessible in China, he replied that we could help by “providing affordable VPN service.”
‘Government can also play a role in empowering Chinese netizens. Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has suggested that the US, for example, could start with some basic funding for the kind of “science and technology innovation that gave us the internet to begin with”. This could include potential “game changers” in China such as ad hoc mesh networking, which allows users to communicate with one another by hopping from one device to the next without an internet service provider in the middle…Ultimately the Chinese internet cat-and-mouse game will be won with innovation, not political pressure.’
The end game may not have been reached and any final decisions are still be being debated within the corridors of power, both here in the Chinese homeland and around the world, but Google is recruiting again in China and if I have got a sense of Brin from this interview, it is that he doesn’t want to walk away from this. A decision that hasn’t got anything to do with advertising revenues being halved over these last few weeks. It is more to do with what Emily Parker also refers to, that: ‘Chinese netizens are remarkably adept at using the limited tools available to them. In doing so, they are transforming their country in a slow but irreversible way.’ Why, it might seem to Brin, take some of those tools away from them?
Maybe I am as naive as he is accused of being, but I will nevertheless sign up to his school of optimism, keeping an eye on the quite obvious abuses of power but doing so from within a wider time frame of reference and with some of the issues that are working on the edges of these abuses in mind. That is at least why I want to try and write a few more notes like this, to help me engage with and learn a little more about some of the realities that are surging under the surface of this great country, that I very much enjoy living in, and that are creating its future.
‘People are not yet accustomed to making their own independent voices heard outside the tone set by the government. This is true for more timorous suggestions on issues of reform, and it is certainly true for jointly organized acts of expression on matters of public policy. But there is another fact to be glimpsed here. And that is that the trend toward political democracy is unstoppable in China. Reform will come. That much is certain.’
We’ll see, but one thing I ‘ll add is that there is no rosy picture of a perfect democracy out there. China is going to find its own way into the future; working on the edges of all our ideas might help that process, for all of us.
*Update: Link to an Image Thief article: ‘There’s More to the Great Firewall than Technology‘
Tags: Google China