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Are Google and Chinese Communist Party Incompatible?

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 28, 2010

    Google has become an important element of day to day life for millions of internet users. It has come to symbolize the freedom of information and knowledge and ease of access which is critical for the spread of internet. In China, by the end of 2009 the total number of internet users had reached the figure 384 million. What is significant is that in just a decade the number of Chinese who used internet had exceeded the total number of Americans. Google entered the Chinese market in the year 2006 in compliance with the restrictions applied by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

    The theory that China is one of the largest untapped markets and that it promises huge profits has been a driving force behind large western companies. The same theory can be applied to the entry of Google as well. After its entry Google even undertook measures to not hurt the sentiments of the Chinese people. One example here is that it had shown the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of Chinese territory; Arunachal Pradesh has been claimed by the Chinese from time to time.

    In January 2010 Google declared that it will shut its Chinese search portal due to the ongoing monitoring by the Chinese government and also continuous hacking. It was also seen that most of the gmail accounts which were attempted to be hacked belonged to human rights activists. This clearly shows that the Chinese government is in control and that it is not ready to give full and free access to information to the Chinese people.

    It is a known fact that the Chinese government has some very strict rules when it comes to dissemination of information. Issues like Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong, and Tiananmen Square, to name a few are still considered to be of quite a sensitive nature. In such a situation when the traditional media is completely under the control of the party and is considered as the extension of the party organ, internet provided an opportunity for people to express their views. It is one of the most prominent reasons for such an increase in the number of Chinese who access the internet.

    But the announcement of Google’s withdrawal should also be viewed as a defeat for the general belief that with time Chinese society may become freer and connected and in return pressure the government to relax its controls. The Leninist understanding of the media being the mouth piece of the party has continued to be a reality in China. Though, after the opening up of the economy and continuous economic reforms, the party had withdrawn from the social sphere to some extent. But such developments clearly show that the CCP is still not comfortable with the idea of the Chinese people attaining greater space in the information arena.

    The Chinese government is capable of handling this situation under the pretext of feelings of nationalism. As we have seen in the last few decades, CCP has very successfully transformed such issues into matters of nationalist feelings. After the speech by Hillary Clinton, it has been transformed into a matter of dispute between the United States and China. If this continues, given its history, the CCP is not going to waste much time before it colours it as western propaganda and successfully manages a movement against it. China was pretty quick in criticizing Clinton’s defence of the idea of freedom associated with the internet.

    This incident also underlines the fact that internet has become a major player in China. With the rapid industrialization in China it was generally believed that the CCP will pave the way for a more open and democratic path. But this clearly shows that the decisions and the position of the CCP is not something to be questioned. The current regime is completely confident that it can build and sustain a booming economy without bothering to change the way the political structure functions. This incident is one of the most prominent example of the Chinese model of development. China has made it clear that if one is interested in doing business in China then it has to be according to the terms and conditions set by the party.

    One needs to ask here if there is a contradiction between the CCP methodology which is based on loyalty to the authoritarian ideology and the information age which recognizes the importance of the individual as a critical entity. The developments in the field of technology has changed the pace and spread of information availability. This is one thing which the CCP is not comfortable with. The CCP still believes in controlling the media and the flow of information in order to avoid another Tiananmen Square, may be this time in the digital arena.