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February 14, 2010

China’s social media stance inflexible, insular and unsustainable

China’s data mining activities last month provoked fierce opposition from Google executives. Since then there has been silence, but China’s banning of Western social media whilst pursuing its own, is an isolated agenda that is hopelessly flawed.

Since the “Great Mexican Standoff” between Google and China appeared in the Press last month, Google is still censoring its results a month after its executives took to provocative public outpourings on China’s laws that demand the removal of search results that China’s government considers either “subversive” or “offensive”.

Now, Google officials are keeping “mum” about the company’s position, although they now say it might “parse its Chinese search results” for several more months while it looks at “steering through this political and cultural minefield” in search for compromise.

From the very beginning, it did seem to me that Google was playing along with the US government’s concerns about China throwing its weight around, which it is increasingly prone to do. Google, it seems, wants to find a way to stay and the Chinese government doesn’t want Google to leave because that would mean a “loss of face”. Last month’s announcements may have been sheer bluff, backed up by the US position of China being seen as increasingly unruly global bully, but the stalemate continues to bite.

From blocking or closing down thousands of Western blogs and social-networking sites with accusations that the US is seeking “information hegemony”, the Chinese government made it clear that its media policy platform is to isolate its population from “negative opinions” from the West.

While it is illogically inconsistent that China’s political model, which combines free-market principles with spoon-fed state enterprise, intolerance and human rights abuses is viewed by some as an alternative to disillusioned Anglo-Saxon casino capitalism, it is no answer to retreat into socially hermitic seclusion.

Maybe this pseudo-alternative is attractive to the dispossessed, but it is worth noting that the Chinese have copied the West’s social media models to fuel its own online social discourse. And while market pressures feed on the need to continue with its double-digit economic growth to ward off any possible backlash and a redux towards social instability, its central bank has still had to apply the brakes in the New Lunar Year on its overheating economy.

There have been reports over the growing signs of conflict among its people, with a higher crime rate and a growing gap between the rich and poor. So it is no wonder that the internet has become a primary medium for anti-Chinese forces to “subvert” the State. This has led to overriding social supervision in applying new standards for public security agencies to enforce, which Google is now caught up in.

Last week, the launch of Google Buzz sparked news agencies into reporting that it is highly likely it will be censored alongside Facebook and Twitter, which have already been banned. It is worth noting though that, according to a Netpop Research study, the Chinese are twice as likely to use chat and three times more likely to micro-blog, blog and use video conference than American users.

According to “The demand for social video site Youku, Facebook-like site Kaixin, and instant messaging service QQ have seen a surge in popularity over the past year alone, with Youku experiencing a five-fold growth in its revenue over last year, bringing in the equivalent of 29 million dollars in 2009.”

While we in the West may shrug our collective shoulders that what happens in China is of little interest to us, the country’s online population is expected to reach 500 million in 2015, and that is of great interest to global corporations like Google, whatever the restrictions.

But neither isolation nor opprobrium is the answer. It may take years to resolve but as Lord Mandelson, First Secretary of State to the British government, summed up in an op-ed on Sino-Western co-operation: “…A billion-person blocking minority is not an obstacle to global governance; it is the end of global governance.

“The dilemma for Europe and America is this: We cannot dictate China’s development or the solutions to its problems. But we do not have the luxury of ignoring them either.

“Europe and the US need to recognise that China will not simply accept a model of global governance or multilateralism that it played no part in designing, or which it feels does not reflect the imperative of its growth and stability.

“But China needs to make it clear that it understands that China is too big, the challenges too great and the global village too small for China to retreat into inflexibility or insularity. We may have to show some patience, and nerves for the occasional friction, but one way or another, we all need China to succeed and we all need China to start leading.”

Ideally, both the Chinese government and the West — including Google excutives — would be wise to heed these fine words and start working towards some form of co-operation that can one day be accommodated into a global, homogenised social-media contract of understanding.

But just understanding China and its culture is a one-way street that is doomed to fail. Instead, China has to understand Western values also. It is not just a “handful of Western reporters” who support human rights in China, but all of us. This is one of the prime reasons behind the discord and why China finds the need to censor the internet so intensely and therefore set up proprietary clones of Western-based social media sites.

China would do well to get off its high horse and stop bossing countries around, like the US. Threats on sales of arms to Taiwan, the meeting of the Dalai Lama and kicking Google into touch are adolescent and primitive means of establishing a workable detente.


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