Dear New York Times: WTF?

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.

Chinese police shut down Google!

After some quotes from experts, including Bill Bishop of Digicha and Sinocism, Wines continues:

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 advancenot 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.

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0 thoughts on “Dear New York Times: WTF?”

  1. Good post! I really had to shake my head at this. Particularly at those 2 paragraphs that you quoted.
    Seems like the journalist knew little to nothing about the topic in question and made assertions. I believe anyone could have written a better article.
    What I wonder about really is: what is in it for google?? I really don’t see it. I honestly think few people will buy this cheap PR-stunt and if it isn’t one, then did they really expect that the government wouldn’t react?? Nobody at google can be that stupid.

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  2. Custer, thanks for the link and the “smarter”, I am flattered 🙂

    In fact I am quite fond of M. Wines, he does some good stuff once in a while and I owe him a good deal of NYT link juice. But really I can’t imagine how he got this article so wrong, after all the time he’s been writing about the Chinese internet. They must be working with a lot of pressure at the NYT, otherwise it doesn’t make sense to get this wrong, when the basic facts are really not so complicated.

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  3. At least you don’t blame “Western media” for one article’s mistakes this time. This was a poorly written article, kind of like shooting fish in a barrel, no?

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  4. Here are Michael Wines’ last ten articles in the Times. He seems to be on the beat called “US-China friction.” I guess there’s nothing else worth reporting in China — the only reason that China exists is to create friction with the US.

    P.S. I’m reminded of the frenzy in the Indian media about six months ago over alleged Chinese incursions across the border. Basically manufacturing hysteria out of thin air. Truly, the second age of yellow journalism is upon us. I just hope we don’t get a repeat of the Spanish-American War.

    Recent articles by Michael Wines in the New York Times:
    1. Stance by China to Limit Google Is Risk by Beijing
    2. Google Faces Fallout as China Reacts to Site Shift
    3. Citing Recession, U.S. Again Presses China on Revaluing Currency
    4. Chinese Leader Defends Currency and Policies
    5. China Issues Another Warning to Google on Enforced Censorship of the Internet
    6. China Blames U.S. for Strained Relations
    7. China’s Bank Chief Says Currency Is Unlikely to Rise
    8. China Premier Details Economic Plan
    9. China Says It Is Slowing Down Military Spending
    10. Moderate Quake Rattles Taiwan

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  5. I agree. While google made some innovative products like their search engine, they simply brought other innovative companies like youtube or copying others like twitter like product like Google buzz.

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  6. Although the article is bias, you have to admit that some things have changed in the last four years… At that time there weren´t so many huge social webs (twitter, facebook…) that were blocked, including some own by Google (Youtube, Blogspot, Picasa, Google Docs…) At that time, and untill the Olympics, things were getting better and freedom on the Internet was improving little by little… Now it seems everyday is worse than the one before…

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  7. @Zai China – indeed, totally agree. There is a difference between policy and practice – especially in China. Just because general policies have not changed, does not mean doing business can’t get more difficult, arbitrary, and opaque – and given my own experience on the net in china I would have to say on balance of probabilities I tend to believe Google when they claim business has become a whole lot more difficult for them since the Olympics.

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  8. @ Zai China: When I said “with no change” I was talking about Google’s policies/practice. Since they agreed to filter their search results from the get-go they would need to have been changing something else for me to buy the idea that Google’s time in China is a “free speech experiment” like Mr. Wines says it was.

    I, too, believe Google saying business online has gotten harder since the Olympics. Everyone is saying that. The question is, why is Google saying that so quietly? Just saying “censorship!” and leaving has the result of — well, you’ve all seen the results for yourselves.

    @ AndyR: Yes, admittedly, if these fish were not in a barrel, they were certainly in some kind of pretty enclosed space. Perhaps a koi pond. That said, this was the lead article on the front page of the New York Times website (briefly). Stupid stuff gets written about China all the time but usually stuff this stupid doesn’t come from them.

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  9. I think your response to the Times’ essay is shrill and off the mark. Not your best work. I like it better when you’re butchering one of Han Han’s blog posts.

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  10. Zai China,

    I don’t buy it when you say things have gotten progressively worse. I remember 4 years ago that it was better than 50/50 chance that you couldn’t get onto the vast majority of western news sites. CNN.com was consistently blocked, and even papers like the South China Morning Post were blocked more often than not. God help you if you tried to access the Chinese version of the BBC site.

    And what about Wikipedia? It was only a few years ago that no NY Times article referring the Chinese Internet would be complete unless it referenced the Wikipedia blockage. And now? Where’s the mention of the fact that Wikipedia is now by and large unblocked for Chinese visitors?

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  11. No this article is wrong. Google in china now gets redirected to Google Hong Kong which has no censorship so they did do something which is stop censorship after 4 years

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  12. I left a comment yesterday and somehow it has not appeared here. Am I in the spam list? I thought I had got the sofa!

    Anyway, I disagree with Zai China. While there was a clear crackdown in 2008, motivated by all the things that happened that year, I don’t think there is a general trend towards more censorship. What there is is a growing concern from the government because obviously the internet is becoming more powerful, and the efforts to “guide opinion” are stressed more now. So OK, in this sense you can perceive more interference. But nor more censorship in terms of “scope of the content that gets censored”.

    And BTW, M. Wines rocks, but I agree in this article he messed it up completely.

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  13. I left a comment yesterday and somehow it has not appeared here. Am I in the spam list? I thought I had got the sofa!

    Anyway, I disagree with Zai China. While there was a clear crackdown in 2008, motivated by all the things that happened that year, I don’t think there is a general trend towards more censorship. What there is is a growing concern from the government because obviously the internet is becoming more powerful, and the efforts to “guide opinion” are stressed more now. So OK, in this sense you can perceive more interference. But nor more censorship in terms of “scope of the content that gets censored”.

    And BTW, M. Wines rocks, but I agree in this article he messed it up complete

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  14. @ anonymous: They didn’t “stop censorship”, they just stopped censoring themselves, but their move had no effect on Chinese netizens (except that now it seems the government is actually increasing the censorship filters aimed at Google, so in that way, Google actually made censorship WORSE for Chinese netizens…)

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  15. The focus on google.cn seems to exclusively about their search engine, yet that is just one part of their business. Yes, google, inc. agreed originally to follow Chinese policy and to censor their results, but I don’t recall that they ever agreed to having blogspot blocked, nor picasa, nor other services. Am I the only person that has trouble whenever I click past the third page of the image search?
    I have not been able to access my weblog for a year and it pisses me off that these other aspects of what makes business, and my life, difficult for google, inc. in the PRC get ignored. Whenever a government is so biased in favor of its own nationally based and compliant companies that foreign companies are at a disadvantage, those companies ought to rethink their reason for remaining in that country.

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  16. Good rebuttal of some clearly bad assertions But to be fair to the author, so many have written on the issue, including a few at NYT, he has to find something new to say!

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  17. “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.”

    I did a double-take there. Is that sarcasm?

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  18. 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.
    …….filtering search results was something Google agreed to do when they first entered.
    ——————————————————————————————
    There’s another article in the NY Times that quoted someone from Google who said China asked them to “censor more and more”.

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  19. Actually, every China story by Wines that I’ve read has been poorly researched and grossly illogical — it’s shocking that he is NYT’s Beijing bureau chief. The other China correspondent like Wong are significantly better, though.

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  20. @ Andrew: Not sarcasm. Hence the reason I said “the Chinese”, not “Chinese netizens”. Obviously there hasn’t been any opinion polling on this to support me (or anyone else), but still…

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  21. What do you think of this article?
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/27/technology/27iht-google.html

    Last summer, a concerted pushback from industry groups and U.S. officials caused China to back off from a plan to require makers of personal computers to adopt special filtering software known as Green Dam on computers sold in the country.

    I’m pretty sure I read that it was mainly domestic outrage and pressure that caused the Chinese government to back off.

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  22. Wow, yup, that’s pretty awful too. While I’m sure there was some pushback from US companies, my impression at the time was that it was 100% because of domestic pressure that they backed down. Certainly, displeasure with Green Dam was EVERYWHERE on the Chinese net when they announced it.

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  23. Nice article.

    I’ve found the NYT to be quite biased in their reporting about China; sometimes publishing downright lies.

    Just to take this one example: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/24/world/asia/24park.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

    Apart from the fact that the article is quite biased which I won’t go into, It says that the Han population in China is 96%, while in reality it is about 92%!
    So apart from being biased, they are irresponsible too.

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