From Kant to Mao…
In the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century, thinkers in continental Europe began to shift from explaining the world as a well-made watch (basically static, “what you see is what you get”) to a biological metaphor that pictured the world as a growing, evolving organism. They also started to worry that “common sense” experience might not be the open book everyone thought, but instead might contain deliberate deceptions of the unconscious mind.
Karl Marx developed the latter trains of thought into a theory of the evolutionary development of political forms culminating in a paradise of social and economic equality for all. Lenin added the fillip that if the downtrodden masses weren’t traveling fast enough on the road to socialism, it would be ok for the Communist Party to speed the process up in any way–including lots and lots of violence– it could. (Yes, pretty simple-minded for today’s tastes. But, for what it’s worth, replace “socialism” with “democracy” and you have the US neo-conservative position on the Middle East.)
For China, the last surviving overt bastion of this point of view, the Party is the guardian of truth; everything, including the communication of information, is politics. The US, neo-cons aside, has pretty much stuck with the older idea that there’s a self-evident objective reality, and a “right” way of doing things that everyone is capable of figuring out by himself.
…to Google in China
This brings us to Google’s entrance into China. On the one hand, China’s a huge, fast growing market. On the other, as the price of entry into a media business there (every country in the world regards media as a strategically important field), Beijing required that Google allow search results to be censored–so, that searches like “Tiananmen Square massacre” or “Dalai Lama,” which might cast the Communist Party in an unfavorable light, would come up empty.
Google agreed to China’s conditions. But the company also decided to host all its email from outside China, so that the government couldn’t simply get email data by physically grabbing the servers. Gmail quickly became a favorite for human rights activists (though Beijing would probably describe them as political criminals instead). In recent months, those accounts have been the focus of cyberspace attacks emanating from China. A couple of days ago, Google finally got fed up and threatened to close up shop and leave China, despite its enormous profit potential. What it’s fed up about is less than clear. My guess is that Google’s fear is that China’s next step will be to try to seize Google’s analysis of users’ search histories and patterns.
Should Google have expected any different treatment from what it has received? It might have hoped for something different, but expected? –no. From the earliest days of adopting the capitalist economic system, China made it clear that it was doing so because there was no other choice. The economy was too big and too complex for central planning to work any more.
But China made it equally clear that this new freedom did not extend to politics, where the Party would remain supreme. In particular, the government’s deepest fear has always been social unrest. Anything that would lead citizens to question the party’s moral authority is forbidden. After all, the Party is the group of visionaries that is leading the way to socialism.
Google’s stance is thoroughly American
I find something pleasingly American in Google’s position–the idea that the individual has “inalienable rights” apart from the group he is a member of.
This can’t be simply naivete
The US has a long history of rabidly partisan tabloid journalism. In fact, News Corp., the greatest proponent in the English-speaking world (maybe the entire globe) of communication as a form of propagandizing, has been very active in US media for many years. Writers for the Wall Street Journal, for example, have been complaining that since the News Corp. takeover the editing process now involves deleting references to Republican shortcomings and adding a double dose of Democratic miscues. Taking a page–whether wittingly or not I’m not sure–from Lenin’s playbook, Fox News styles itself as “Fair & Balanced,” implying its rivals are not. News has even spawned a (pale) imitator to its cable offerings from the left in MSNBC. I’m not a particular fan of Mr. Murdoch or of Fox, but in a certain way you have to admire them both.
Yes, making itself a forum for a Republican point of view has made Fox News immensely profitable and has given it tremendous political clout. But unlike the case in China, if you don’t already know this, you can easily find out from a rival publication–where, as in the citation above, you can also learn how Fox shapes the facts to fit its political bent. Also, you won’t find the police at your door to arrest you for watching news on a non-Fox channel. And I’ll still be blogging next week, as well.
What is it then?
My guess is that the optimists inside Google thought of the Communist Party in China as Murdoch writ somewhat larger. They’ve now discovered their mistake and how different the political system there is. Leaving is probably Google’s best option.