Is Google the hammer that brings down China's wall?
Here's a proposition for you: Google is to China the way VCRs were to the Soviet Union the way cassette tapes were to the shah of Iran.
We know from history that technology has played a key role in building and destroying empires. When it is employed by rulers and used on people, as Rome (ballista) and England (longbow) proved, it builds regimes. When it creeps in from the bottom and is used by people, it can topple regimes.
In 1964, the shah banished the Ayatollah Khomeini from Iran, where his activities were closely monitored. Abroad, however, he was free to do what he wanted. What he did was use cassette tapes to record sermons that denounced the shah and incited an Iranian revolution.
In the late '70s, cassette tapes were an ascendant technology. They were smaller than eight-track tapes and LPs and -- most importantly -- they could be easily copied. Once Khomeini's cassettes got into Iran, they spread like a virus among the people, allowing Khomeini to essentially overthrow the shah by remote control.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was a rusting hulk of an empire. Excessive military spending on the arms race with the U.S. had bankrupted the country, creating a mighty military power that could not put bread on the shelves for its citizens. In the mid-'80s, however, Premier Mikhail Gorbachev cracked open the door to capitalism, allowing small co-ops. Among the first were small video salons in houses, the backs of stores and so forth. As if they were in tiny movie theaters, Russians crowded around TVs to watch Western movies. They showed an outside world full of gorgeous automobiles, homes that looked like palaces, well-stocked, working refrigerators and, more importantly, the idea that political freedom can lead to prosperity. There were many causes of the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, this was one of them.
Let's be clear. The growing Chinese middle class suffers no such privation. (Though the millions of poor do.) The communist Chinese government has created a capitalist economy run by an authoritarian regime. The Chinese don't have free speech, but they do have the latest gadgets. And there is a sliding scale of freedom vs. prosperity. Time and again -- see Singapore -- we have seen that people will give up varying amounts of personal liberty in order to gain prosperity, order and security. When people are trapped inside of something, they want out -- if they are suffering. The less they suffer, sometimes, the less they want out.
What the Chinese also have is Baidu, Google's biggest search-engine rival in that nation.
Unlike substandard Afghan VCRs imported into the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Baidu is no joke; it's a functional search engine that has nearly two-thirds of China's search market. Of course, Baidu -- which trades on the Nasdaq -- is controlled by the government and censored. China does not allow its citizens to see Facebook, for instance, or Twitter. The authoritarian government is doing everything it can to prevent destabilizing influences -- i.e., Western-style democratic ideals -- from reaching its people while letting in many of the West's creature comforts.
On Baidu's About page, in English, the company writes: "Our mission is to provide the best way for people to find information." It could have added, "that we will allow them to find."
Google has let itself to be censored by the Chinese government in exchange for the privilege of doing business in that country. Google agreed to that requirement in 2006, reasoning that some access to outside information is better than none.
But the hacker attacks may have been too much for Google. The Western strategy toward China for the past 30 years has been one of capitulation, arguing that the Chinese market is too big to ignore. President Bill Clinton granted China most-favored nation trading status in 1994, famously de-linking trade from China's human rights abuses.
Google may end up capitulating again. During an NPR interview on Thursday, Google's top lawyer, David Drummond, said: "We operate a global Web site and that Web site is accessible in China. ... You can rest assured that we will do everything we can to serve the Chinese market," he said.
As of Thursday, reports from China said that the filters at Google.cn appeared to be wavering, at times censoring sensitive search terms -- such as "Tiananmen" -- while letting them through later. Google says it has not yet started to take the filters off Google.cn, which could take weeks.
Decades of political pressure have failed to force China's government to give its citizens freedom. External pressure from foreign governments can often cause citizens to rally around their government, especially if that government controls speech.
But Google is a glittering temptation. It already is popular at Chinese universities and among the young, who are the foot-soldiers of revolution. Google's promise -- to organize the world's information -- is more than a promise for freedom-loving Chinese. It is a hope.
If Google can stick to its guns, perhaps it can do what decades of U.S. presidents could not: tear down China's Great Wall to the outside world.
-- Frank Ahrens
Follow me on Twitter at @theticker
January 15, 2010; 2:43 PM ET
Categories: Corporations , The Ticker | Tags: Baidu, China, Google, Soviet Union
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