Duncan Riley> Not surprisingly, the announcement that Google is going into China with a censored version of its services (and no Blogger, which is odd really given MSN Spaces is the biggest blogging service in the country) has resulted in the usual backlash and boycott calls throughout the blogosphere, in the same way that boycott calls occurred when news of the censored version of MSN Spaces was announced.
I was going to write a long comment piece supporting their move, and in part Jason Calacanis beat me to it, so I’ll do some direct quoting from Jason, who fortunately totally gets it.
Technologists have limited choices when it comes to China, we can:
1. Fight China’s requests, be kicked out of the country, and have our services permanently blocked.
2. Agree to China’s rules and regulations–even though we don’t agree with them–and get a foothold in the rapidly changing environment.
Which is totally right. Taking the high moral ground short term will do nothing to change the situation in China, because at the end of the day others will take Google’s place…indeed Google is really pretty late to the party in China as it is.
As we all know–the Chinese government included–there is ultimately no way to hold back freedom of information in China. What the government wants, and I’ve been there and spoken to a lot of people about these issues, is to have *their* change be gradual.
Now, this gradual approach doesn’t feel very American, but the truth is our own journey to democracy was a slow, bloody journey of well over 100 years.
Now I’m not a professional historian (although its something I’d like to study again one day), but I’m happy to play ameteur historian on this one, because its fairly clear to most people who’ve done an elementary study of history that effective, democratic change is rarely successful when thrust upon people due to the violent overthrow of a Government (isn’t Iraq a pretty good example at the moment??). Democracies are traditionally created due to the demands of a growing middle class that wants more of a say in the running of a country, and China has a growing middle class (100-200 million are some of the figures I’ve read). Take a look at the rise of democracy across Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom, and you’ll see the demands of a growing middle class effecting change. The Cromwell revolution was a complete failure but in the years following the monarchy continued to cede more power to the people as it wished to maintain its position. Even as Jason Calacanis writes the American Revolutionary War did not establish a stable democracy over night, with other wars and disputes finally making way over time to a stable and free society. Australia, the third (or 4th, I cant remember the exact position) longest continual democracy in the world came about as a free and independent nation due to an emergent middle class wanting a say in the running of the place, and at least in Australia’s case the peaceful introduction of a national parliamentary democracy in 1901 was peaceful and a damn site more successful than many other countries that chose to fight wars for the right.
All of which is true for China.
China is gradually changing. We only have to go back 20-25 years to see a backwards nation made up of peasants and a ruling elite. Today China is a vibrant country that embraces world trade and continues to open its doors to others. The Internet, and for that matter the blogosphere is also an important part of this change. Sure, Chinese bloggers can’t call for the other throw of their government or for a violent uprising, but wouldn’t this be now illegal in most countries anyway (the Patriot Act in the US, the Anti-Terrorism laws in Australia). The only difference really being that the call for Democracy isn’t really allowed in China…and yet the calls for a Muslim state to be established in Australia would be regarded as sedition now anyway?
The free flow of ideas and people is our best bet of seeing change in China in the years to come. My understanding (and I don’t have a direct quote or reference) is that already some municipal elections in China have been opened up. Once upon a time Chinese citizens weren’t free to travel the world, now China is Australia’s fastest growing source of inbound tourism.
And you know what, the Chinese Government isn’t stupid. Sure, they don’t want to lose power, but does any ruling government even in the democratic world? They are already embracing change to keep their citizens happy, and over time this growing middle class will demand more change.
Closing off China to the world because we don’t like their politics or their form of Government would only really result in another Iran or North Korea, but a whole lot bigger, with a whole lot more people and nukes.
I’ll quote Jason Calacanis again, because he puts it so well:
“Taking a hard line with China will make them pull back and move slower. Giving the people, and the government, a taste of how sweet democracy and a free market can be will draw them in, and once you’ve tasted freedom you can’t go backwards. The place has changed more in the past year than in the past ten, and more in the past ten years than in the past 1,000 years.”
Sometimes you’ve got to look at a bigger, more long term picture with these things. I don’t like Commies one darn bit, but if we’ve got to have Commies let them be more like China than North Korea!
China will change even more over time, but condeming Google for wanting to trade in one of the world’s largest marketplaces isn’t going to change China…at the end of the day the only people who can change China are the Chinese people, and they already are.
And I’ll leave the last word to Bill Gates at the World Economic Forum in Davos
“the internet is contributing to Chinese political engagement as access to the outside world is preventing more censorship”.