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From Yin-Yang, Wushu, to Kowtow: Google’s Foray into China

Column writer discusses Google’s prospects in China.

Due to the lack of corresponding words or concepts in English, some English words are phonetically translated from Chinese. For example, the Chinese words “Yin” and “Yang” are translated into “Yin-Yang.” When Bruce Li’s martial arts films were red hot in the 70s, the Chinese word “Wushu” (martial arts) became known in the West. When these words become a part of the American vocabulary, it is often a signal that the underlying culture has impacted or brought a new element to life in America.

“Kowtow” is another phonetically translated word from Chinese. When Westerners first saw officials in China kneeling down and kowtowing to the Emperor, it might have been a strange sight indeed, and perhaps even evoked feelings of disdain or disbelief. It might have seemed unlikely for this word to find its way into the American lexicon. Nevertheless, many multinational corporations today are “kowtowing” to the Chinese government for the sake of opening up the vast Chinese market.

I was disturbed to find that Google, the most popular online search engine in the world, has been assisting the Chinese government to censor and monitor its citizens’ Internet usage. It has removed web sites and articles that the Chinese government bans from its results. As one of my favorite web sites, Google has the best technology of all the search engines, but more importantly in my mind, it has the famous promise to “do no evil.”

According to sources from the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) of China, Jiang Mianheng, the son of the former President Jiang Zemin, visited the No. 502 Research Institute of MII right before the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP). He was there to see a demonstration of the second generation high-speed Internet, in particular, the high speed of Internet searches. To please the junior Jiang, an engineer typed into the Google search engine the name of his father, “Jiang Zemin.” To their surprise, three of the top ten pieces of news detailed unsavory acts committed by the senior Jiang during his reign. In addition, “Evil Jiang Zemin” was listed as the headline! Shocked and outraged, Jiang Mianheng ordered the website blocked.

The same search today in China through Google will indeed please the junior Jiang, since the results now are favorable for the most part.

Google once played a positive role in helping China’s users obtain a broader range of information. Its access to web sites banned by the Chinese government, including those related to human rights, the democracy movement, Falun Gong, among others, helped Internet users bypass the Chinese firewalls. A few days after Google was blocked in 2002, co-founder Sergey Brin promised that Google would not give in to censorship. It would, in fact, provide Mainland China users with dynamic web sites, changed daily, to bypass the government’s firewalls.
In a Capitol Hill hearing last year, prominent human rights activist Harry Wu indicated that many large IT companies based in the U.S. have helped China become a digitally policed country in exchange for opening up the Chinese market. For example, Cisco helped China build a complete voice recognition system that can quickly recognize sensitive words spoken over the telephone. Anti-virus companies such as Symantec have helped the Chinese government impose censorship by classifying programs that help viewers see blocked websites as Trojan viruses. One example of this is the popular program Freegate, which is automatically removed from the user’s computer by the Norton anti-virus program upon detection. Yahoo and other free email providers reportedly searched their users’ emails and filtered what the CCP deemed to be “harmful information.” While major multinational corporations were kneeling down and “kowtowing” to the Chinese regime, Brin’s statement to hold fast to Google’s promise of “do no evil” was widely applauded.

When Google began its IPO efforts this year and tried to open up the Chinese market, however, I was concerned that it might be pressured to make compromises. Unfortunately, Google has already started self-censorship. According to a report by Business Week, Google voluntarily excluded several sites banned by the Chinese government. A spokesperson said, “In order to create the best possible search experience for our mainland China users, we will not include sites whose content is not accessible.” The same Business Week article points out that the content could be easily made available via Google’s caching technology, and the company is “taking the extra technical step of sniffing out a visitor’s location —something it doesn’t do with other regional news sites,” in order to determine which pages to show where.

By bowing down to the Chinese government’s wishes, Google is giving up its unique advantage and a key differentiator.

Many users use Google out of their trust in the presumably unbiased search results that it’s famous for. Indeed, for those in the U.S., when Google is sometimes required to remove content based on the Digital Millennium Act, it still lets the user know that they have removed content that would have otherwise appeared. Such disclosure is once again missing in the Chinese site. If it continues down this slippery slope, Google risks losing what distinguished it in the first place.

In this information age, the impact of Google on the Chinese will be far more profound than that of “Yin-Yang” and “Wushu” on America. While freedom of information is an elusive goal for the Chinese under the reign of a Communist government, bringing democracy to China through Western businesses will be no more than a pipe dream if even the “do no evil” Google can’t stand up for its loyal Chinese web surfers.

Thankfully, the Google Chinese portal is still in a test-launch period, so it’s possible that the company may decide to reverse course. One can only hope that the two founders of Google will remember the school motto of their Alma Mater, “The winds of freedom blow.”

Shijia Gong is a Ph.D. student of telecommunication at George Mason University. He regularly writes articles commenting on China issues. His first long novel, Out of the Mundane Dust, was published in 2003.