Searching for a defining principle in the war of words between Google and the Chinese government, even after Google’s move yesterday to redirect search traffic from the .CN domain to its uncensored .HK address, may be about as fruitless as filtering high prose from a cable TV political pundit show. In a bizarre demonstration of what’s being called “openness,” China’s state-run news service responded to Google’s move yesterday first with a “nudity” slide show (news photos over the years with naughty bits included), cushioning some op-eds designed to characterize Google as out-of-step not only with China’s progress, but with America’s.
Conforming with state laws governing expression, argues a Xinhua op-ed late yesterday, is just one of the globalization trends that many enterprises and business ventures must embrace when entering new territories. Why can’t Google, Xinhua asks, be more like KFC?
“All commodities come with some cultures and ideologies,” reads one new op-ed, entitled, “Can China Live Without Google?” “China definitely is influenced by the West, but the influence is mutual. People of a certain culture learn to know a different new thing, but the new thing also has to learn to suit its new customers. That’s why KFC serves Chinese porridge and McDonald’s provides Chinese food menus here.”
The Xinhua report casts suspicion on the notion, which it says was instigated by a March 20 article in the Washington Post, that without access to the most defining brand on the Internet — a singularly American brand — China will become an outcast nation. There’s no reason a foreign company can’t do business in China, it argues, but it cannot bring with it foreign influences that endanger the national security. That would run counter to the country’s “Opening-up Policy,” as it’s called when translated into English, which depends on China’s ability to foster a fair and competitive environment for foreign investment.
Part of the country’s broader “opening up” involved the 1997 handover of Hong Kong (where Google’s China search requests are now centralized) from British to Chinese authority. The agreement between China and the UK which made possible this handoff, triggered the creation of an exclusive Hong Kong Bill of Rights. Article 16 of that ordinance reads in part, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
The key phrase in that above sentence is “regardless of frontiers,” which seemed to mean at the time that the freedom for individuals to express opinions openly to the outside depends on their freedom to acquire information from the outside, beyond the borders or frontiers. (Hong Kong also maintains an independent judiciary authority from China.) Almost immediately after the handoff, however, China authorities made it clear they expected Hong Kong’s press to apply “self-censorship.”
The organization Reporters Without Borders periodically reports on the progress of Hong Kong’s ability to maintain a free press, including a free Internet, in the midst of the mainland’s oversight and expectations. A few years ago, those reports were looking somewhat bright and cheerful. But in recent years, they’ve turned more skeptical, especially in light of an incident during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. At that time, Hong Kong journalists were expected to be “carded” and regulated as foreign journalists, which meant their work might be subject to screening.
China still relies upon the fact that other countries — specifically, other countries’ investors — rely on the freedom of Hong Kong’s financial press, especially to trust reports of improved investment value in that country to be something other than state-run propaganda. Nonetheless, it’s becoming clear that China is treating Hong Kong more and more like its own version of Las Vegas, where whatever happens on the island stays on the island.
By moving to the island, Google avoids a direct confrontation with China, and the danger of “politicalization” that Xinhua states would ensue. But should the company go forth with plans to do a “Radio Free China” act from the comfort and exile of the island, it could find its message somewhat muted. China has an interest in keeping Hong Kong as a “special” enclave, and so long as Google does business behind those walls, it may end up actually serving the government’s interests anyway, serving as the demon of choice for anti-Western values when demonizing America or Europe would be untimely.