Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on July 01, 2009
It’s not often that opponents of Internet censorship get to celebrate a victory of the Chinese government. Today’s one of those rare occasions. The official Xinhua news agency reported last night, just hours before the July 1 deadline, that the Chinese government wasn’t going to rush ahead after all with a new policy requiring all PC companies to include locally-made censorship software with their computers. Back when the news first broke that China was pushing this Green Dam filter, I said the chances of the censorship policy actually going forward were slim, given the history of Beijing announcing silly policies and then backtracking after getting an earful from outraged multinationals. Sure enough, that seems to have happened this time.
What now? The censors still have the upper hand, despite the Green Dam retreat. YouTube remains a favorite target; Google’s video-sharing service has been offline in China for almost two months thanks to government blocking. Google’s search engine is under attack, too, with Chinese officials accusing the U.S. company of not following rules to block porn. In the lead up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, censors went after the usual suspects as well as Twitter, Flickr and Bing. And after the embarrassment of Green Dam, it’s unlikely the government is going to ease up on censorship, since that would be a sign of weakness.
There’s a chance that some good will come from all this. Maybe China’s top officials will realize that this pattern - announce a draconian new policy, prompt an international outcry and then reverse course - is just too embarrassing for an economic super power. Writing on Huffington Post, Tom Doctoroff sees the potential upside.
The government has officially noted “technical issues” and “concerns about data security” as reasons for the delay. But everyone knows the truth. The CCP, in its zeal to control the thoughts and actions of its people, crossed an infra-red line of a people who, in exchange for political subservience, demand a government that advances economic interests and the freedom to live without heavy-handed bureaucratic interference. The Green Dam, a ham-fisted attempt to monitor online dialog, directly threatened both quality of life and access to the outside world. The people, in on- and off-line worlds, revolted.
Beijing’s about-face, following surprisingly vocal criticism at home, “highlights an evolving relationship between the Communist Party and the Chinese people,” he writes. “Despite being light years from introducing dramatic, multi-party political reform, it is increasingly small-d “democratic” (i.e., responsive) vis-a-vis the demands of a new, economically-empowered middle class.” Doctoroff sees the Green Dam incident as an example of the growing power of Chinese people to influence the government’s decisions. I’m not so sure; as I and others have written, this case seems to fit into the typical pattern of the government reversing bone-headed decisions by bureaucrats. In the past, nothing has changed. But let’s hope Doctoroff’s right that this time will be different.
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.