Great Leap Forward

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The people may be made to follow a path of action, but they may not be made to understand it.

— Confucius

A long-simmering dispute between Google and the government of the People’s Republic of China appears to be coming to a head this week, as the Internet search giant began re-directing traffic from its Chinese-language search engine to its site, based in Hong Kong.

With this action, Google has taken a giant leap over the great wall of censorship the Chinese government has tried to maintain between its 1.3 billion citizens and information the Chinese leaders don’t want them to have.

Web searches by China’s huge pool of Web users—the largest in the world, an estimated 400 million people—that were routed through Google’s mainland-China based servers were run through the PRC’s censorship filter, which blocked access to Web pages that made the rulers unhappy (think The Hong Kong servers are filter free.

Google says it made the move as a last-ditch compromise to preserve its technology business in China, which employs more than 600 people on the mainland. A few months ago, the California-based search titan accused agents of the PRC government of hacking into its servers to gather some dirt on Chinese dissidents. For a brief time after the hacking incident, Google shut down the censorship filter on its mainland servers, raising the ire of the Chinese politburo. The filter eventually was restored and intense negotiations ensued. The U.S. government, meanwhile, has been conspicuously silent about this issue, treating it as private business matter.

Google is gambling that the Chinese government will not take the drastic step of extending the censorship curtain to Hong Kong, which under an international agreement transferring control of the island from Great Britain to China in 1999 has been able to maintain a separate, more open system than the iron fist that rules the mainland.

However, Google apparently is preparing for the worst and may soon exit China altogether. Market analysts already are speculating that Google’s worst-case scenario will be a boon to Google’s competitors, including Microsoft’s Bing and China’s emerging home-grown search products.

We hope not. The recent history of engagement between Western high-tech companies and China has been sullied by the eagerness with which the companies dispose of their principles as they salivate over the massive Chinese market. The most notorious example of this was Yahoo’s willingness to provide the Chinese secret police with confidential user information, a shameful act that may have sent hundreds of Chinese to the PRC’s gulags. Yahoo later claimed it was required by “Chinese law” to do this, which is a bit of an oxymoron.

The argument between the world’s most populous nation and what will soon be the world’s largest company is about much more than access to markets. The Chinese leadership wants to have its cake and eat it: they want unfettered use of our high technology—without which they can’t be a global competitor—but they also want to use this technology to maintain their dictatorship and stifle human rights.

It is time to tell China’s rulers they can’t do both. Here’s hoping the Blackberry that President Obama likes to wear on his belt loop starts buzzing with some viral text messages urging him to put the full weight of the U.S. government behind Google.

It’s a World Wide Web, or it ain’t.

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