The CPD Blog is intended to stimulate dialog among scholars and practitioners from around the world in the public diplomacy sphere. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect CPD's views. For blogger guidelines, click here.

Google Diplomacy

Mar 25, 2010

by

APDS Blogger: Peter Winter

Is Google bold? It takes some serious courage to stand up to the gatekeepers of the world’s biggest market. By refusing to kowtow to the Chinese censors, the tech company that built its fortunes on the free flow of information stood up for its business model, not to mention the ideals of its home country.

Even the act itself was elegant. Rather than simply shutting down its Chinese website, Google transferred all visitors to the censorship-free Hong Kong website. It is still China, right? This “diplomatic” approach allowed the Silicon Valley giant to cross the cavernous fault line between morality and business.

Or is Google dumb? The Chinese powers that be have already hit back, charging Google with breaking its written promise to the country and acting as a White House pawn. The company’s hopes of protecting its advertising and research divisions within China are fading fast as state media and government officials lash out.

You often hear about how important “face” is in China. Similar to one’s reputation in the West, the concept has a more collectivist tint in the Middle Kingdom. People will go to seemingly absurd lengths to save face - if you have ever seen a street side shouting match in Beijing, then you have some sense of just how important one’s public appearance is to the Chinese.

Perhaps the worst possible way to get the Chinese government to change is by making them lose face. In almost every diplomatic tussle between the two countries, a head-on approach invariably leads to both sides digging in. There is a saying popular among American diplomats in China: 坚 定 不 移 (jianding buyi). It means “steadfast and unwavering,” and is regularly evoked in regards to the U.S.’s One-China policy (there is only one China on either side of the Strait). The same idiom perfectly captures China’s central government: while U.S. foreign policy can be stubborn, Chinese foreign policy is downright immovable.

The best approach is to push China’s leaders from the side, deflecting their energies toward more beneficial ends. Rather than confront the government outright, Google could have better served its own interests through quiet, backdoor negotiation. Perhaps Silicon Valley has a ways to go in its foreign policy.

What is unclear, however, is how Google’s move is influencing the Chinese public. Are ordinary people content without a free flow of information? The flowers left at the company’s front door make me think no. It’s not that Google’s move is an “Oh my god! We are being censored!” moment, but it may serve as the tipping point for an already simmering public, ready to join the modern, technology-open world.


Peter Winter is a second year student in the Master of Public Diplomacy program, and managing editor of US-China Today.

COMMENTS

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
5 COMMENT(S)

Great article, Peter!

Great article, Peter!

Maybe Google intentionally wanted to make the Chinese government lose face. Perhaps Google executives knew there was no way the Chinese government would let any of this go, and they actually wanted to maximize Google's own exposure as a company willing to go against the wishes of 天朝. Why would they want to do this? Well, it rallies a lot of Western fans to Google's side and gives them a good excuse to get out of a project that perhaps wasn't doing as well as they had hoped. If they're not interested in remaining in the Chinese market anymore, then angering the Chinese government about freedom of speech issues might actually in their best interest.

-Daniel

Like many westerners who

Like many westerners who spent a year or two in China and picked up a few Chinese words here and there, Mr. Winter falls into the trap of the PRC's government propaganda of doing things "the Chinese way".
They often cite "face" as the be-all and end-all of Chinese diplomacy and treat the PRC as a spoiled child who must be handled with kid gloves.
(I do think it is because of westerners' own history of prejudicial perceptions of the Chinese.)
Google has been in China long enough to understand that the government is totally adapt in pushing and pushing until one submits oneself to its complete control.
Mr. Winter should wake up to see the PRC exactly what it is; the same way Google has finally recognized that there are only two choices in the PRC - to submit to the CCP or follow Google's own corporate code of conduct of "Don't be Evil".

Dear Ms. Lau,

Dear Ms. Lau,

Thank you for your thoughts. I always appreciate good feedback, it definitely helps focus my understanding of the situation.

I do not believe that pushing China's leadership toward greater accountability "from the side" constitutes doing things "the Chinese way." Rather, it is a simple strategy for good diplomacy, whether dealing with China or any other country. I rarely see full-on confrontation yielding positive results. With the Chinese government in particular, the response is usually one of heel-digging, intentionally provoking some nationalist response from the public. As a student of public diplomacy, I worry about that blowback. But as I noted in the article, I am very interested in how this plays out among the Chinese public. Those citizens concerned with freedom of information and human rights will have a hard time remaining quiet about this.

I agree with you that American diplomats often treat the PRC too gently. I believe we are seeing the beginning of a more mature, "adult-gloved" US stance toward China. What I find most fascinating about the Google decision is the very visible example of private companies stepping into the diplomatic arena. While private entities have long played a role in US foreign policy, only now are we beginning to see "Information Policy" as a strategic interest.

Thank you again for your thoughts, and I look forward to hearing from you in the future.

Best,
Peter

I have been involved in many

I have been involved in many different human rights actions for the people of China. A good question to ask for perspective is, "Has the PRC ever changed a position due to outside influence, because it was a way that saved face?" From what I know the answer is a resounding no. The PRC has it's own agenda, which clearly has little to nothing to do with human rights. And, when we take actions to try to influence them, they are often futile due to the closed nature of their political system and not the culture.
It is more likely that they are influencing our political system, in that we echo the PRC's party line as it is fed to us. They say, "Chinese culture, history, and thinking is thousands of years old. And Westerners just don't understand why we are not ready for democracy. Life is good here."
We hear this from so many mainland Chinese, and so it sounds authentic. But, it comes from a totalitarian political system, where this is really the party view, regurgitated for foreign consumption.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have been trying for decades, to lessen human rights abuses in that country by gently approaching the PRC in a face saving manner. It hasn't worked yet.
Mainland China opened it's doors to the West, because it realized it's economic system was a failure. But, it's political system remains unchallenged, growing in strength with the economy. Now they have the technology to monitor the whole internet using segment of society, with the ease of modern technology, from Cisco, Yahoo and Google. Maybe, Google is realizing this too late. Maybe too, questioning the complete disregard for human rights in China even feels hypocritical to an American political system that is encroaching on it's own citizens human rights. It seems naive to think that our government doesn't spy on online accounts at home, or that they always have good intentions.

Dear Mr. Winter,

Dear Mr. Winter,
I believe Mr. Gabriele has answered your argument on the productivity of pushing China from the side and helping them save face.
As to your judgment that the current administration is mature and "adult gloved" in their dance with the PRC, surely, Mr. Winter, you jest.
Certainly, one would not consider the Academy award worthy performances of Obama and the Communist Youth League at the Shanghai "town hall" meeting as "adult gloved". Perhaps the three administrators who played the part of "student" and asked their prepared questions are certainly adults. Maybe you are referring to the "adult gloved" action of the Obama entourage paying respect at the Mao Mausoleum to someone who murdered more of his own people than Hitler and Stalin combined.
If you want to find out what the Chinese public think about censorship and the Great Firewall, check out Southern Metropolis Daily of Guangdong or Han Han's blog upon being aware that he was nominated for Times magazine's 100 most influential person. The saddest part is when he wrote what he considered as the giant improvement for his country "如果我们国家能做到话不投机一拍两散,而不是话不投机把你封杀,那就是我们国家的巨大进步".
Ann Lau
Han Han's Chinese comment follows.
For English translation of the daily and Han Han's blog, see
http://chinadigitaltimes.net/china/southern-metropolis-news/
and
http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2010/04/han-han-let-the-sunshine-in/
韩寒:我没什么影响力
在昨天,我看到了一条新闻,新闻说我候选了时代周刊的两百个影响全球的人物,中国同时入选的还有敏感词,敏感词和敏感词等人。当时我正在我们村里挖笋(我挖的是自己家的),没怎么注意,后来回去一看手机上有不少的短信,问我对此事的态度,我只回复了新京报和南都的两位朋友,其他媒体写的均为凭着对我性格的猜测下的友好想象。我没有想到大家还比较关心,在这里我就做一个统一的回复。
首先,我非常感叹和惋惜,为什么别人有这样的新闻媒体,当时代周刊弄一个人物榜的评选的时候,能够让全世界其他的国家都起波澜。我多么渴望我们中国也能有类似的一个新闻媒体,当他评选人物的时候,在全世界也引起关注。我们不能说这样的一个媒体完全公正,但是它是有完全的公信力的,我多么渴望我们国家也有。可惜我们并没有。不是说我们的媒体人要比其他地方的媒体人差,而是因为一些……原因,这些原因众所周知,点到为止,多说必死,死后鞭尸。
我经常自问自己,我为这个充满着敏感词的社会做出了什么贡献,可能到最后我只贡献了一个以我的名字命名的敏感词而已。我天天睡到中午,经常浪费钱买数码产品,还挑食,但好在我也未曾给这个社会增加罪孽和负担,至少迄今为止是这样。我没有辽阔的远见,我唯独只想让相关部门善待文艺和新闻,不要给他们过多的审查以及限制,不要用政府的权利和国家名义去封杀或者污蔑任何一个文艺工作者和新闻从业者,这样的话,不用你们花大价钱,这个国家会自动生产出输出到西方世界的文艺作品和新闻媒体,我们的每一个小小的读者听众观众网民市民国民都能同享荣光。
我未必有天赋和能力写出好的东西,但是别人有,但你不要阉人有夸人无。
电话里记者问我,有一些地方还说你和西方反华势力勾结,我说这个很正常,人家这招用了六十年了,前几十年还有发自内心的,后几十年纯粹是用于泼脏水了。我一个要去西方国家比赛经常因为材料不够齐而差点签证都办不出来的人,还西方势力呢,况且都什么年代了,还勾结不勾结的,
这词说出去多难听啊。相信如果有哪位朋友天天监听着我的电话的话,您一定很清楚我究竟是一个怎么样的人,您说呢,电脑前一定会有一位朋友会心一笑的。但我只是奇怪,这些御用笔杆子,怎么几十年都用一个体位,他不烦,对象都烦了。但是,我坚决赞同他们的存在,因为总有正方和反方,总有甲方和乙方,如果我们国家能做到话不投机一拍两散,而不是话不投机把你封杀,那就是我们国家的巨大进步,我们也将为此而努力。
后来他又发短信问我,那么换句话说,你这个人的观点和言论符合了西方人的价值观,你觉得是么?
我回消息说,难道不符合中国人的价值观么?
我相信地球人和外星人也许价值观不一样,但是西方人和东方人,除了生活习惯不一样以外,价值观应该是差不多的,为何一定要争呢。
最后说回到所谓的影响力,我经常非常的惭愧,我只是一介书生,也许我的文章让人解气,但除此以外又有什么呢,那虚无缥缈的影响力?在中国,影响力往往就是权力,那些翻云覆雨手,那些让你死,让你活,让你不死不活的人,他们才是真正有影响力的人。但是不知道是因为他们怕搜呢还是不经搜,往往在搜索引擎上还搜不到他们。我们只是站在这个舞台上被灯光照着的小人物。但是这个剧场归他们所有,他们可以随时让这个舞台落下帷幕,熄灭灯光,切断电闸,关门放狗,最后狗过天晴,一切都无迹可寻。我只是希望这些人,真正的善待自己的影响力,而我们每一个舞台上的人,甚至能有当年建造这个剧场的人,争取把四面的高墙和灯泡都慢慢拆除,当阳光洒进来的时候,那种光明,将再也没有人能摁灭。

STAY IN THE KNOW

Visit CPD's Online Library

Explore CPD's vast online database featuring the latest books, articles, speeches and information on international organizations dedicated to public diplomacy. 

Join the Conversation

Interested in contributing to the CPD Blog? We welcome your posts. Read our guidelines and find out how you can submit blogs and photo essays >