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"Information Imperialism" and "New Berlin Wall"

By Lin Hongyu (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2010-01-29 17:28
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The Google incident has aroused a war of words between the US and China. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state criticized China's cyber policies , calling them the "New Berlin Wall" that she accused of contravening international commitments to free expression. China reacted by denouncing the criticism as "information imperialism" and urged the US to respect the facts and cease using "Internet freedom" to point fingers at China.

In my opinion, three factors triggered the Google incident. Firstly, it is an ideological conflict again.

As the most important and influential countries in the world, China and US have a different ideology concept and value system. Ideological conflict was not unusual over the past years. With a different historical background and development level, China has different views on the Internet information freedom.

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Unlike advanced Western countries, the Chinese society is still vulnerable to multifarious information flowing in, especially those intended to create disorder. As we know, today the west world holds the speech hegemony, flooding those countries that won’t follow their lead with aggressive rhetoric.

With their own historical experience, some western countries worry about China's rise and still hold a Cold War mentality. Under such conditions, China has to pay more attention to Internet security than the so-called Internet freedom. According to the statistics of the State Council Information Office, China's government had received more than 80,000 Internet complaints in recent years and a great majority of them came from western countries.

On the other side, the US holds double standards on Internet management. In the Republic of Korea, the US ally, its government requires users of YouTube and blog commentators to register their identities. The US is also not without its own free speech controversies. Just after Hillary’s speech, it was reported that FBI has illegally gained the phone records of thousands of account holders on the excuse of terrorism emergencies.

Secondly, the need of election politics fueled the case.

Periodical election politics also plays a special role in the Google incident. As we know, 2010 is US Congressional election year. The ruling Democratic Party wants to maintain its advantage in Congress. To occupy the moral high ground is a traditional tactic for the Democratic Party to win the election. Fighting for Internet freedom and making more opportunity for cyber expression is a good alternative for the Democratic Party. For instance, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he was drafting legislation to strengthen US cyber security. "Google's experience should be a lesson to us all to confront this ever growing problem aggressively and with all available means," he said in a statement.

Third, is it a smart politicized commercial advertisement?

Google, the world's top search engine, set up Google.cn in 2005. Since then, it has been struggling to compete with local market leader Baidu in China's $1 billion a year search market. Benefiting from the fast-growing Chinese economy, Google.cn has grown faster than many analyst expected since 2005. However, Google are not satisfied with its about one third market share. It deems China's internet policy as its growing bottle-neck and seeks to break it through in 2010. It is Google's plan, to play a moral card and seek US government help. In my view, Google's pulling-out strategy is just a politicized commercial advertisement and it has achieved its tactical target in some extents, but would lose its long-term strategic goal in the future. China has the world's biggest Internet market, with more than 384 million netizens,.and if Google quit, others will get in quickly.

In fact, Google's announcement to quit from China has shocked investors and analysts, who worry the web search leader's strategic plans, may be threatened. "For investors this is clearly a negative," Broadpoint AmTech analyst Benjamin Schachter said in a research note. "The obvious concern is that China's growth has been solid and its market potential is enormous." Such concerns pushed investors toward Chinese indigenous Baidu Inc, which shares more than 60 percent in China's search market. Shares of Baidu jumped almost 14 percent on January 20, while Google shares slipped 1.5 percent.

What’s the case’s impact on current Sino-US relations?

The Internet freedom will become a new quarreling issue between China and US. We are going to see some turbulence in China-US relations in the next few months. We may see some tactical concessions from China, but the general trend isn't toward compromise.

However, Sino-US economic ties will not be affected by Google's decision to withdraw from China. In my opinion, keeping relations stable is still the main mission of both governments. In Washington, US officials tried to avoid fueling the public spat even though they said they stood by Clinton's remarks. In Beijing, China's foreign spokesman also indicated that China's government does not want to see the dispute overwhelm cooperation with the Obama administration, which needs China’s help in reviving the world economy and diplomatic standoffs, such as the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. With the two nations joined at the hip economically, Sino-US tensions are unlikely to escalate into outright confrontation, but could make cooperating on global economic and security issues all more difficult.

Lin Hongyu is the Professor of University of International Relations in Beijing, P.R.China.The opinions expressed are his own.