Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Chasing the China market and enduring censorship

Western companies across a range of sectors operate in China. The tech sector's desire for its share of the China cake is understandable

The German drama The Lives Of Others is likely to find its rightful place among the best films ever made. Among other things, the film shows the power of a humble typewriter. The character Georg Dreyman uses a smuggled typewriter to publish an anonymous article in Der Spiegel about the abnormally high suicide rates in East Germany that the authorities are hiding from the world. The article becomes a major embarrassment for the repressive regime. While this was a film script, information technology—right from the printing press to the internet—has been crucial, argues law professor Anupam Chander, to political change. Sticking his neck out, Chander claims that the internet is “a far more powerful medium for dissent than any history has thus far seen".

It is, therefore, not surprising that the Chinese government is so scared of an unfettered Internet. What should also not surprise us is the willingness of a powerful corporate behemoth like Google to compromise on its stated values in order to gain its slice of the huge online market in China. According to internal documents unearthed by The Intercept, Google is planning to launch a censored version of its search engine for people in China. Dubbed as project Dragonfly, the planned app (which will serve as the search engine) will comply with China’s censorship laws and blacklist keywords deemed politically sensitive by the Communist government. In internal meetings, Google’s chief executive officer has defended the project, saying the company’s plans are still “exploratory" in nature.

China is, after all, not just any other authoritarian state. It is the second-largest economy with the largest middle class in the world. Western companies across a range of sectors—from finance to retail—operate in China. The tech sector’s desire for its share of the China cake is understandable. LinkedIn, for instance, operates in China after having agreed to censor some content. Facebook has flirted with its own version of Dragonfly: It was reported in 2016 that Facebook was planning to use the services of a third party—probably a Chinese company—to control what its users in a specific geography see on their timelines. The project did not move ahead owing to protests by Facebook employees. In Google’s case too, about 1,400 employees have registered their protest in a petition to the company’s senior executives. They are demanding greater transparency about the project so that they can make “ethically informed decisions" about their work.

But it would be a mistake to see this as a problem of the tech sector alone. It is a problem of gate-keeping. Companies like Google and Facebook have massive responsibilities as information gate-keepers. But so do academic journals. Last year, Cambridge University Press (CUP) faced a lot of flak from academics around the world after it was revealed that it had succumbed to China’s pressure and blocked online access to more than 300 articles of its prestigious The China Quarterly journal. While CUP reversed its decision in the face of protests and petitions, the Springer Nature decided to go ahead with blocking access to at least 1,000 articles in China.

Journals don’t have the mass reach of Google and Facebook. But given their reach among the intellectual class, their submission to authorities in Beijing is perhaps even more ominous. Intellectuals are supposed to lead dissent against a regime that suppresses freedom of expression and deprives its citizens of basic human rights. It is important for the editors of journals, just like employees of tech companies, to be more aware of their companies’ practices in countries like China. The intention behind Charlene Makley’s petition against CUP’s decision to censor content in China was exactly the same. As told to The Scientist, Makley wanted (goo.gl/VPYt43) her petition to prompt awareness among editors and make them take a position on censorship issues.

Such protests from the academic community and employees worked in the cases of CUP and Facebook, respectively. They may even work in the case of Google. These petitions may not be a foolproof mechanism against censorship forced by authoritarian regimes, but they can be effective in decreasing the incentives on the supply side of censorship. Any change on the demand side will require political reforms in China—a task out of bounds for most individuals and companies.

The more difficult question is: Is selective engagement possible? Can, for example, tech companies and academic journals accept a Faustian bargain in the hope that their presence is better than leaving the field entirely to state propaganda in repressive states? Google’s experience from its first stint in China (2006-10) is instructive. Ryan Singel and David Kravets wrote (goo.gl/AZzkso): “Google came to China in 2006, with much of the same optimism that (Richard) Nixon brought—a belief that engagement would be good for both, and would lead to freedom and prosperity for China’s citizens." They were referring to former US president Nixon’s famous opening to China in the early 1970s which ultimately contributed to China’s prosperity but did not bring about political reforms. Frustrated with Beijing’s ever-widening censorship net and cyberattacks originating from China, Google eventually decided to quit the country in 2010. Will this time be any different?

Should tech companies accept censorship as a reasonable cost of doing business in China? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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