China-US ties strained like never before
By Benjamin A
WASHINGTON - In hindsight, Wednesday's United States House of
Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing over "The Google
Predicament" may well prove to be one of the many grains of sand which are
slowly eroding the conventional logic that has kept America and China engaged
for most of the past several decades.
On the whole, the testimony and
congressional statements appear to suggest we are fast approaching a rebalancing
act between the two countries. Such a moment might change little in the way of
formal policies and promulgated laws, but it will have significant impact on the
politics and philosophies of engagement between Beijing and Washington.
The relationship between the US and China is being tested now as it has
not been in 30 years, if ever. Literally every front is being strained, with the
net effect being that many politicians, policymakers and even average Americans
are beginning to wrestle with whether it makes sense to be in a relationship
with China at all.
If one had to choose a single idea held consistently
across most of the congressional statements and expert witnesses today, it would be that the grand idea of
China democratizing as it opened to trade with the West may no longer be a valid
framework by which to understand our situation. Around Washington, this is
becoming an increasingly common question, made more heatedly and pointedly in
the midst of America's perceived economic decline.
perspective, this was not a friendly hearing. While some members of this
congressional hearing made an effort to acknowledge the difficulties in
understanding China's development and how it uses technology within its
political institutions, the majority of Wednesday's congressional testimony was
quite hostile towards China.
Most notable was congressman Dana
Rohrabacher (Republican, California) who
said about China's political leadership,
"You can't treat gangsters and thugs as if they were the same as normal people,
and this is what we're talking about today ... China is a vicious dictatorship."
Rohrabacher has been a long-time tenacious and principled advocate for dissent,
more dramatic liberalization and human-rights reforms in China.
more narrowly about the matter of the hearing, namely Google's experience of
working inside of China, congressman Robert
Inglis (Republican, South Carolina) said, "There are two Googles: the real one,
and the one the Chinese communist dictators want you to see."
Wong, vice president and deputy general counsel of Google, testified that
"Google is firm in its decision to stop censoring search results [in China] ...
but we want to do it in an appropriate and responsible way."
that, Wong also stated that they are prepared to "shutter our Google.cn property
and leave the country" if need be. It is important to distinguish the two
primary issues that Google is wrestling with: first, the original devil's
bargain made when they agreed to enter China and have their search results
censored. Never entirely comfortable with this, Google developed a protocol that
would notify someone in China when his or her search results had been filtered
due to Google's agreement with the Chinese government. This solution has never
been particularly appreciated by Beijing, but has been allowed.
Similarly Google, whose unofficial corporate motto of "Don't Be Evil"
may seem to some oddly unhelpful in their overall day-to-day search operations,
seems particularly on-point when describing the paradox of their China business model. Google's second issue is more
recent, namely its discovery of highly organized and concentrated attacks on
their corporate information technology (IT)
systems, including Gmail, from within China.
Wong did make it clear this
event was distinct from their discovery that particular Gmail accounts of human
rights advocates had also been hacked from within China. In her written
testimony she elaborated on this: "We discovered in our investigation that the
accounts of dozens of US-, China- and European-based Gmail users who are
advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by
third parties. I want to make clear that this happened independent of the
security breach to Google, most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on
the users' computers."
While Google's concerns may be best embodied by
its situation in China, it faces similar questions in other countries such as
Thailand, Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Situations in these countries
follow similar paths as the company's experience in China: authoritarian
political regimes that desire to "plug into" the information super-highway and
want Google's information-gathering technologies deployed within their country,
but who feel compelled to limit the information their people can freely access.
As Wong testified in the hearing, "More than 25 governments have blocked Google services over the past few years”.
Most notably are the 13 countries that have blocked YouTube, including Turkey,
whose justification is that some videos posted "insulted the Turkish nation". In
addition, Wong shared that "in the last two years, we have received reports that
our blogging platform [Blogger and Blog*Spot] has been or is being blocked in at
least seven countries including China, Spain, India, Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar and
On January 21, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
acknowledged similar events when she said, "In the last year, we've seen a spike
in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia and Uzbekistan have
stepped up their censorship of the Internet.
In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared.
And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained."
best, Wednesday's hearings embraced Clinton's remarks and wrestled with how
technologies can be (and whether they should be) exported to empower individual
voices of dissent while enabling overbearing authoritarian political
institutions. Unfortunately, at its worst, the discussion sought to elevate
Google's recent problems as the embodiment of China's "true" intentions.
Google's dilemma in all of these countries is the extents to which their
products and technology hold the possibility of further reinforcing the
stranglehold authoritarian regimes have on information. It becomes increasingly
difficult for the company to believe in its motto, knowing that its technologies
are prohibited from existing in versions that could further educate, inform and
A number of congressional members voiced concern over
this very idea, namely Representative Albio Sires (Democrat, New Jersey) who
asked whether "China could become a model for other countries who want to
similarly restrict information access?" Rebecca MacKinnon, visiting fellow at
the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University,
acknowledged that one of the more important questions was determining "how
authoritarian governments are adapting to the Internet".
"Over the past
five years many authoritarian regimes have shifted from reactive to proactive in terms of how they deal with the
Internet. Most modern authoritarian governments now accept the Internet as an
irreversible reality. Rather than try to restrict citizens' access, the most
proactive regimes are working aggressively to use Internet and mobile technologies to their own advantage."
realization may speak more to Google's reconsideration of its China business
than anything else: it is one thing to make a devil's bargain with unfriendly
regimes in the hopes that your products will enable liberalization. But what if
the exact opposite happens and they make increased oppression and misinformation
For the most part, the IT industry in the US continues
to very much wrestle with these questions. Robert Holleyman, president and chief
executive officer of the Business Software
Alliance, mentioned the work the Global Network Initiative has done to
establish standards for IT companies to bridge the gap between the rights of
individuals and the desire of some governments to control information access.
Holleyman reinforced on
Wednesday his belief that allowing IT companies to "remain in these markets is
important", given both their economic potential as well as their ability to
empower individuals to communicate and make change, as best evidenced by the
role technology played in the recent Iranian election protests.
Wortzel, a commissioner for the US-China Congressional Committee (USCC), clearly
felt the recent attacks on Google from within China should be understood as
broadly consistent with China's cyber-warfare doctrines. Wortzel, in testimony
he wished be understood as his own and not that of the USCC as a body, stated he
believed three types of "malicious Chinese computer network operations" needed
to be recognized as originating from China, and likely government sponsored.
During the hearing, he identified these as: "Those that strengthen
political and economic control in China; those that gather economic, military or
technology intelligence and information; and those that reconnoiter, map and
gather targeting information in US military, government, civil infrastructure or
corporate networks for later exploitation or attack".
much of the testimony and exchanges was the matter of China's trade practices
and how they impacted American business. It may be possible to see this more
clearly when looking back, but how congress treats China over the course of the
next two to three years is likely to have more to do with the US's economic
prospects than an enlightened sense of human rights.
In response to
questions by representative Sires, who asked if Americans realized "we are in
the middle of a big Cold War ... we have bad economic times ... is America
focused enough on this new Cold War?" Wortzel pointed out that unlike the
original Cold War, we "have no containment policy [with China] … we are heavily
engaged ... but we have to be very careful of how we navigate through this." He
added, "Much of what China and the American public thought would happen as part
of China entering the WTO [World Trade Organization] in terms of democratization
has not worked."
As Wednesday's testimony reinforced, the interests of
business are still so heavily inter-twined with maintaining ongoing trade
relations with China that it is practically impossible to impose trade
restrictions or taxes on all Chinese made products. In an exchange between
representative Brad Sherman (Democrat, California) and Holleyman, Sherman asked
what specifically industry was prepared to do, or what they wanted congress to
do: "Beg with a louder voice? This has been particularly ineffective with China.
What action are you proposing?"
Sherman wanted to know if industry was
finally willing to support taxing Chinese-made products, or enforce a one-week
trade holiday with China, as a means of showing solidarity over China's trade
and human-rights policies. In Sherman's view, anything short of this "will not
work ... they will throw paper at us, we'll throw it back at them."
However, the political calculus in Washington is beginning to change.
Rohrabacher may have best illustrated this when he said, "We are trying to treat
China as if they were Belgium, and it's just not ... dictatorships do not
deserve the same trading rights as democracies ... free trade requires free
What comes through clearly after the hearing is that what
America hoped the China model would come to represent - trade empowering
liberalization and freedom - may never happen. Instead, the China model may come
to be known the world over as using trade to gather together the pieces of
technology and industry you need for your own purposes, always dangling out in
front the possibility of meaningful reform, but when ultimately pushed to make
these changes, stopping short.
The US-China relationship is stuck
between these two models.
It may well be that the tensions we are
feeling now indicate far deeper divides and incompatibilities. That we are
having this realization in tandem with our own economic insecurities should give
us some patience and discernment lest we entirely upend what has been a
meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries for
most of the past 30 years.
Benjamin A Shobert is the managing
director of Teleos Inc (www.teleos-inc.com), a consulting firm dedicated to
helping Asian businesses bring innovative technologies into the North American
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