Google's announcement to partially withdraw from China may be seen as a challenge of freedom over censorship, but turning the issue into a debate of good versus evil leaves out many important facts. Even in the digital binary world of 1's and 0's, there are shades of grey that need to be accounted for. In China, a country long-defined by walls and equally hemmed in by the stereotypes of outsiders, there is no denying the important and transformative role that the internet now holds.
Looking beyond Google, broader internet trends in China -- while not perfect -- reveal many reasons to be optimistic. China is opening up at its own pace and in its own ways, and access is increasingly being liberalized. In just a matter of years, China has taken the momentous step of opening itself and its citizens to the global community by establishing the world's largest internet network. More people are online in China today than there are people living in the U.S. -- including more than 338 million people surfing the internet, 700 million mobile users (500 million of which surf the net on their phones), and 180 million blogs. The Chinese people are becoming more and more integrated with the world population each day. This has been a historic development for a country that just 60 years ago was founded with no money, economy, or social institutions to provide for its people.
This nationwide initiative of economic and social reform has had dramatic and far-reaching results for the Chinese population. The serious public and online debate within China about Google's withdrawal is just the most recent example. As the Chinese government continues to direct large-scale programs to promote economic development and ensure social stability, it adapts to respond to the needs and concerns of its citizens. In particular, the incredible growth of the internet has fundamentally changed how citizens relate to the government. Chinese netizens have emerged as crucial new support in China's anti-corruption efforts and in fighting against local injustices by drawing national attention to criminal and corrupt acts. Case in point, Chinese netizens enabled Deng Yujiao to become a "cause célèbre" and a symbol of courage standing up to the power of corrupt government officials. This young waitress was hailed by netizens as a heroine after being arrested and charged with murder for fatally stabbing a Communist Party official who demanded sex. After much online attention was drawn to her case, she was ultimately freed.
Giving people the access to information is also increasing transparency and accountability in government. In Robert Lawrence Kuhn's book How China's Leaders Think, he cites an example of Qiu He, the Party Secretary of Kunming, publishing the phone numbers of thousands of local leading officials (including his own) along with their responsibilities in the Kunming Daily newspaper, instructing that random checks be made to assess whether officials were answering calls from the public. He was awarded the title of Outstanding Contributor to China's Reform.
Criticisms have been levied on China for limiting its citizens' access to information on the internet, and there are indeed many areas in which China needs to show more progress and openness. However, we cannot look at this from a purely black and white perspective. When it comes to internet regulation, there is a fine line between arbitrary censorship and security, and neither China nor the US has been free of criticism when it blurs the line excessively. The U.S. in particular regulates content based on several concerns, among them indecency and national security and the US and China both have taken steps to limit the ability of these criminals to effectively carry out their plans over the internet.
China's internet and telecommunications deployment has been nothing short of breathtaking, and progress is occurring at a rapid pace for China and the Chinese people. But to China's critics the change is never fast enough. China is currently managing the herculean task of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty while slowly bringing 1.3 billion people from a closed society into the shared global community. This is a delicate balance, and one with significant stakes for China and the world. In this light, Google's withdrawal from China is primarily a statement about one U.S. company not willing to obey local laws or work with government agencies to develop its business. China will continue to open up to the world, improve the quality of life for its people, and thrive on the global stage. China is looking to the rest of the world to be a faithful companion along her journey of progress and reform.
Fred S. Teng is Chief Executive Officer of NewsChina magazine.