I have criticized the New York Times before, but generally, I find their writing on China to be pretty balanced, especially once you read beyond the headlines. So it was particular dismay that I read this piece, which starts poorly in the headline department and then goes south from there.
“Stance by China to Limit Google Is Risk by Beijing.” That’s the headline, and it would make sense if Beijing’s stance had somehow changed, but it hasn’t. As always, Beijing requires domestic search engines to provide filtered search results. Google and other search engines have been doing this in China for years. Google’s pullout is in no way a reflection of any kind of change in Chinese government policy, but that headline sure implies it is, and a “risky” one at that.
But, that’s just the headline, and as we’ve established, headlines are written to grab attention, not necessarily to indiciate the true content of the story (perhaps that’s what happened to Wired, too?). So is the content of Michael Wines’s piece any better? Sadly, it is not.
Now China has tightened its grip on the much more variegated world of online information, effectively forcing Google Inc., the world’s premier information provider, to choose between submitting to Chinese censorship and leaving the world’s largest community of Internet users to its rivals. It chose to leave.
If by “now”, he means “four years ago” then this paragraph would be sort of accurate. I say “sort of accurate” because it implies that this was something the Chinese government selectively forced on Google. It was not. All companies operating within any country must obey that country’s laws; filtering search results was something Google agreed to do when they first entered.
The conclusion of Google’s four-year Internet experiment in China — an effort to transplant Western free-speech norms here — was anything but smooth. On Monday, it effectively shut down the search engine it hosted inside China, after declaring in January that it would stop cooperating with Chinese censors.
Well at least now we’re admitting that Google entered China four years ago rather than yesterday. But was Google really conducting an “internet experiment” that was “attempting to transplant Western free-speech norms”? Lets see — they agreed to filter their own search results. That doesn’t seem very free-speech friendly. Then they kept doing that, with no change, for four years. Then, after being hacked, they yelled “Enough!” and pulled out entirely, having changed absolutely nothing about what Chinese people can access on the internet. Forgive me if I fail to see how that counts as an attempt to transplant “Western free-speech norms”. Perhaps someone could explain?
Then, Wines moves to broader generalizations about the nature of internet access in China:
But China also does not acknowledge to its own people that it censors the Internet to exclude a wide range of political and social topics that its leaders believe could lead to instability. It does not release information on the number of censors it employs or the technology it uses for the world’s most sophisticated Internet firewall. Its 350 million Internet users, many with fast broadband connections, are assured they have the same effectively limitless access to information and communications that the rest of the world enjoys.
Certainly, China doesn’t run PSAs informing the populace that the internet is censored for political content, but this paragraph is still pretty damn misleading. There is no attempt to hide the censorship of anything deemed “inharmonious”, and every netizen in China knows that means political and social content. Chinese people are not idiots, there are very few that really believe they “have the same effectively limitless access to information and communications that the rest of the world enjoys” (because the rest of the world doesn’t censor anything, of course). The Chinese have been willing to accept internet censorship not because they don’t know it exists but because, by and large, they buy into the argument that total free speech is damaging to social stability. That is the argument that the Chinese government has always advanced and continues to advance — not that censorship isn’t happening at all.
The rest of the article devolves into an even more ridiculous assertion: that Google is somehow innately better at innovating than domestic companies, and thus, the internet market will stagnate as domestic companies sit around copying each other’s old technologies rather than moving forward. Google does have a history of innovation, of course, but are Chinese companies really fundamentally incapable of this? I reject that notion as stupid — and probably also a bit racist — but I suppose we’ll see for sure in the long run.
The real tragedy is that Mr. Wines clearly spoke to some smart people. Xiao Qiang, the editor of the invaluable China Digital Times is also quoted in the piece, as are several presumably knowledgeable professors (and the aforementioned Bishop), but I find it hard to believe any of them would agree with how the final draft came out. Shame on you, New York Times, and shame on Michael Wines.
(As a sidenote, if you want to know what I think about Google pulling out of China, you can read this, or this — smarter men who’ve said it better than I. If you want the short version: it’s a selfish move that does nothing whatsoever to help Chinese people or the spread of freedom of speech.)
Before you argue in the comments that mistakes like the ones pointed out in this post are irrelevant, or say “Yeah, well the Chinese media is way worse, so what?”, please read this post.