The world's biggest search engine, Google, recently decided to pull out of China, relocating its operations to Hong Kong whose semi-autonomous status allows it to operate outside of prior agreements negotiated with the Beijing government.
Google's decision was initially announced in early January following a hacking of its California servers by a source it claims originated from China.
Contributing to Google's decision were objections to China's requirement that the search engine censor political and sexual content the government found objectionable. China, which potentially has the planet's largest online market, has erected what is called in the West "The Great Electronic Firewall" to keep out what authorities consider objectionable material. Google, in an agreement negotiated several years ago, agreed to comply with Chinese law governing Internet content.
The Chinese Communist Party and government reacted sharply to Google's move, saying the company has politicized its dispute over the hacking. "For Chinese people, Google is not god, and even if it puts on a show of politics and values, it is still not god," said the People's Daily. It continued, "In fact, Google is not chaste when it comes to values. Its cooperation and collusion with the U.S. intelligence and security agencies is well-known."
The Beijing government's foreign affairs department struck a different tone. While calling it a "big mistake" for the company, they separated Google's action from U.S.-China state-to-state relations. "The Google case will not affect China-U.S. relations 'unless someone politicalizes the issue,'" Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on Tuesday.
The Xinhua news agency continues, "Qin told a regular press conference that the Google case is just a business case and will not damage the image of China. He blamed the move to relate the case to China-U.S. relations as 'making a fuss' and 'overstating the issue.'"
Google stands to lose its place in China's domestic market, second only to Baidu, the country's national search engine, which holds a commanding 58 percent of the market to Google's 35 percent.
Internet users inside China are able to access Google's Hong Kong servers but they have "found access to the new search portal was very unstable," said Xinhua.
Internet access and freedom of the press in China is a complicated issue with more involved than meets the eye. Many observers, while acknowledging China's restrictions, note that there is a fairly widespread ability within the country to express differing points of views, including sharp criticisms of the Communist Party and government.
The western press reported erroneously, for example, that President Obama's university speech and town hall meeting last year was blacked out of China's domestic press. Obama's remarks made mention of the issue of Internet freedom.
Still it is undeniable that China enforces what many consider to be an anachronistic and unworkable Internet policy. Filters on Google searches, for example, can be easily overcome with slightly different spelling of restricted names. Other search engines are also accessible albeit at slower speeds and less reliable connectivity.
More broad, however, is the issue of free speech and censorship itself. Here it should be noted that China is not the only country to censor speech. France and Germany both prohibit Nazi and anti-Semitic speech such as Holocaust denial. Rarely are they taken to task for it.
China, on the other hand, concerned with stability and economic growth and rightly jealous of its national sovereignty, attempts far more to control the flow of information. Indeed this appears to be at the heart of its political model.
Yet is it really at its heart? Attempts at what was called socialism in the 20th century were organized around a forced march in economically underdeveloped countries facing a hostile environment. To those in charge, controlling information seemed essential.
But controlling the flow of information in today's world is a shortcut that is not only impossible, but undesirable. Open debate, engagement, artful communication - these are the only viable options for power and consent in the Internet age. People need to be convinced, not ordered and denied information. Bureaucratic and administrative shortcuts are disarming and ultimately disastrous.
That said, it is up to the Chinese people and leadership to work out these issues for themselves.