China’s limits on Web will affect trade

Freedom New Mexico

The Internet search-engine company Google made quite a splash last week with its decision to stop cooperating with the Chinese government’s campaign of Internet censorship and its suggestion that it might end its operations in China. While some have questioned whether Google’s motivations are entirely noble, the move is welcome, not least as a reminder that while its market-friendly economic policies have been remarkably successful, politically China remains a one-party dictatorship that still retains all too much of the paranoia and lust to control everything that characterizes authoritarian societies.

The decision to take on the Chinese government head-on seems to have been spurred by the discovery by Google engineers that Chinese intruders had hacked into private Gmail accounts, presumably in search of information about and possible evidence against Chinese human-rights activists and dissidents. In the course of investigating the cyber attack Google’s people found evidence that at least 33 other companies, including prominent American defense industries, had had their computer systems compromised. The evidence that the Chinese government was behind the attacks is compelling, if not ironclad.

When Google entered the Chinese market in 2006, it agreed to abide by Chinese government censorship rules, which barred access to Web sites that discussed, for example, Tibet, the 1989 protests and massacre at Tiananmen Square, freedom, democracy, and other information the government didn’t want its people to know about. It was widely criticized for knuckling under, although a case could be made that expanding commercial activity in China could be a key to eventually liberalizing the Chinese system.

Skeptics point out that Google has yet to reap a lot of revenue from its venture into China, so its decision to confront the Chinese government may be the first step in reorienting its business strategy rather than a bold step for freedom of expression. Maybe so. Whatever Google’s motives, however — they are probably mixed — it has performed a service by reminding the world that China’s government still doesn’t understand that a free flow of information is important to a free flow of commerce, and may be more important.