Google’s threat to withdraw from China, on grounds that it has been the object of cyber attacks and censorship, is not the opening salvo in a battle between the future and the past. Rather, it is a battle between two equally plausible visions of the future with initial advantage on the side of China.
Granted, that’s not how most people in the West see it. The gigantic Internet search engine company is, after all, the epitome of technological innovation and communication across borders that can only benefit billions around the world. In attacking Google, China, on the other hand, comes across to many Americans and Europeans as King Canute, trying to hold back the tides of progress.
From Beijing, things look much different. To China’s officials, the future may be about continuing to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, facilitating the rise of a rapidly growing middle class, and providing a major boost to world trade.
In their eyes, an uncontrolled Internet may seem like a threat to national stability. Indeed, it seems imperative to ensure the survival of the government that rescued a nation from the devastation and misery of Mao’s failed Communist Revolution. Chinese officials no doubt look at the way America’s financial system imploded, its deteriorating physical infrastructure, and its problem-plagued system of secondary education, and conclude that the West no longer has the standing to define where civilisation ought to be heading.
Both Google and China share certain characteristics, too. It was only in this past decade that Google burst on the world scene with its gigantic IPO and China made its most far reaching global commitments by joining the WTO. (This month China became the world’s biggest exporter surpassing Germany.) Each is feared and even considered predatory - Google by many Internet companies, China by certain segments of the US, EU and countries in its backyard.
Also, global trends reinforce both the Western and the Chinese perspective of the conflict. For example, there is ample evidence that the march of history is towards ever more politically open societies, with America and Europe having led the way in the last two centuries.
On the other hand, Freedom House, a US think tank that has conducted annual global surveys on the ability of individuals to exercise political and human rights, has just reported in its 2010 survey a fourth consecutive year of deterioration in the number of functioning democracies, the longest continuous decline in human freedom in 40 years.
There is a strong case to be made that more globalisation, of the kind Google fosters, is inevitable. After all, for thousands of years human beings have been in the process of connecting with one another across boundaries, seeking food, goods, services, and intermingling religion, culture, and other ideas. Whether you measure global interdependence by commerce, technological exchange, immigration, or cultural interaction, the trajectory has been straight up. That said, globalisation could be slowing down now. The internationalisation of banking may experience some obstacles in the wake of the world-wide credit crisis, as many international financial institutions are compelled to stay closer to home. The recent fiasco in Copenhagen has set back prospects for serious cross-border cooperation on climate change. Global trade negotiations have been moribund for several years, and after a half century of leading the charge for freer trade, Washington is virtually silent on the subject.
It has been an article of faith among most American leaders in government, finance and business that economic engagement with China will slowly, but inexorably, bend China’s society towards Western values such as the rule of law and free expression.
For almost three decades, the essence of that involvement has been penetration into China by international companies such as Google. Multinationals have brought Western style change in other parts of Asia - think about Japan, South Korea, Taiwan - so why not the Middle Kingdom? Surely, so the reasoning also goes, all those Chinese employees of Western firms and all those Chinese students returning from US schools will exert a powerful Western influence, too. However, for centuries the West has always failed to make the kind of inroads it expected. It’s not that the Middle Kingdom doesn’t incorporate foreign ideas, but that it does so in ways that suit its own needs, its own timing, and within the framework of its own culture and national priorities.
What Yale historian Jonathan Spence once wrote some 40 years ago about the efforts of Western advisors in China between 1625 and 1960 is still true: “China, which once surpassed the West, then almost succumbed, now offers to the world her own solutions.”
The two visions of the future - openness, globalisation, Westernisation, on one hand, versus controls, nationalism, and far less Anglo-American influence, on the other - must be seen in the context of certain political realities that make China’s perspective far more viable than most Westerners like to admit.