Category Archives: demystify China's cyberspace

Google’s Exit From China – Why, How and What’s Next?

Much has been said about Google’s exit from China in the media lately, yet as it is usually the case, disagreements on the myth of the cause of the event and its consequence seem to rise on many different levels. Even bloggers who are keen observers and commentators on china’s blogosphere seem to have very different takes on the issue. Many of them, like Rebecca Mackinnon, the most frequently quoted commentators in media on Google’s exit, remains supportive of Google’s exit , regardless of whether Google’s decision was purely due to its Motto, “don’t be evil”. To Rebecca and many others, Google should never have entered the Chinese market under conditions of censorship in the first place. Others, like Kai Pan from China/Divide, a newly established and well-received commentary blog on China, are highly suspicious of the motivation behind Google’s exit, and remain pessimistic about the benefits Chinese netizens would receive from this event. I’m personally more sympathetic to the latter group. But of course questions about how to best achieve your goals, ior n this case particular, how to help improve information freedom of Chinese netizens, usually finally run down to personal beliefs and ideologies. For example, Google’s Motto is “don’t be evil” and it sounds like the motto is an end in itself, and they are not talking about fighting evil. Yet isn’t staying away from evil assumes non-actions of a certain kind? When Google gets out of the mud, yes, it can claim to be clean. But, it also totally loses the opportunity to drive for change from within China. The whole scenario behind Google’s decision to quit, in the month of one of its founders Sergey Brin during his interview with WSJ, confirms the observation that Google would rather walk away with a pair of clean shoes than fighting in the mud. Well then, is walking away really the heroic thing to do here, for a company with the motto ” don’t be evil”?

Indeed, Mr.Brin plays a critical role in Google’s decision to quit. His childhood memory of the repressive Russian regime made him the most suspicious among Google’s top three leaders: himself, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, even when Google was entering of China. And it was Eric Schmidt who pushes for the framing of Google China. While Brin is a tech genius and idealistic in his resistence of “evil”, Schmidt, as the chief executive of Google, is profit-driven and realistic in Google’s approach to change evil. To Schmidt, entering China would be good both for the company and China. And from Brin’s WSJ interview, it was fairly obviously that even during the final decision, Schmidt was supportive of staying in China, even though at an earlier interview with Newsweek, Schmidt also expressed strong discontent with the censorship policy in China, probably keeping in line with the general stance of the company. Yet it is interesting that none of the Western media’s reports that I have seen has mentioned the politics inside Google China, and the impact of the resignment of its former Chief, Kaifu Lee. In a Chinese media analysis written right after Google’s announcement to rethink its strategy in China in January, it detailed the dilemma of Google China as caught-up between the government’s censorship policy, the suspicion from the Google headquarter about its existence, and the hostile competition from Baidu. Kaifu Lee, according to that article, was the key figure who was able to balance the different interest and ideologies in Google China’s business. And his close personal relationship with Schmidt has made Schmidt always firmly on Google China’s side in shareholder and executive meetings. Yet Lee decided to resign in pursuit of his own entrepreneurship in venture capitalism last September, and Google was not able to find anyone as capable as him in dealing with government relations and headquarter inquiries to refill his leadership. And Lee’s comment on Google’s decision revealed his personal opinion on the issue: ” A captain wouldn’t leave his ship even though he knows its sinking”, arguably referring to Google’s decision to quit as irresponsible.

What puzzles me most however, is the lack of good logic in Google’s explanation to quit. They claim that increasing amount of hacking activities to China-related Human Rights activists’ gmail account was the main catalyst of the event, and it was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, according to Brin. Yet as many bloggers have noted, why Google turned a security issue into an overhaul of its policy in China? Google refrained from explicitly referring to the Chinese government as the originator of those attacks, but without which the reasoning seem pretty bizarre. Why on earth the fact that Google’ is under attack from some individual hackers would motivate Google to be suddenly tougher the Chinese government? To punish them for not educating their citizens well enough? And even if we grant that the Chinese government is behind the veil, how does stop censoring content for Google China would make Gmail service more secure, or to drive away more potential hackers?

These observations above seem to echo with the concern expressed in an open letter from a Chinese netizen for both Google and the Chinese Government, in that Google does not seem to be truly honest about the real cause of its decision. For one thing, it does not talk about its underperforming market share in China, and its unfavored position by the Chinese government in its competition with local giants. But interestingly, it was a major point raised by Google’s Director of Public Policy, Alan Davidson, during his testimony at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. In particular, he said that

“When a foreign government pursues censorship policies in a manner that favors domestic Internet companies, this goes against basic international trade principles of non-discrimination and maintaining a level playing field. Local competitors gain a business advantage, and consumers are deprived of the ability to choose the best services for their needs.”

Well, it’s true that Chinese government was clearly favoring Baidu and other domestic search engine, as indicated in the government’s severe denouncement of Google in its campaign to clean out pornography from internet. Speculators have it that Baidu has set Google up in that incident, and though having as much as porn-related information and image on its search engine, it didn’t receive a huge PR blown-away from the government. So the question is, why there is no mentioning of such trade issue in Google’s open letter in its blog, which is intended to the general public including the Chinese netizens, yet it was a main focus in its hearing in front of the U.S. government?

Second, nobody doubts that giving up the Chinese market would have lasting consequences on Google’s profit, and much has been said about that the quit is a big plus for Google’s brand image that would be appealing to customer’s in other markets. Still, it seems very puzzling for me that how such a big potential loss from China would be remedied by the liberal and conscious customers in the West, who I think would the few and selected. Thus, this comment from a Financial Times article seems particularly revealing to me: google’s exit “will help their image in the eyes of regulators,”“ and It could be significant, especially as they come under more regulatory scrutiny in the years to come.” And I think the regulatory scrutiny here, after a bit research, refers to scrutiny of Google as the monopoly in the search engine market. And if being friendly with the U.S.government in its advance of internet freedom as a dispensable human rights would help Google avoid the same fate as Microsoft, then it seems to make much more sense.

No wonder, many said Google has become the scapegoat in U.S. government’s trade-war and political friction with the Chinese government.

But my main concern, is how this whole drama would affect the Chinese netizens. Much still remained to see in the future, and it’s really hard to predict how Chinese government would interpret its role in a Post-Google internet age in China. Yet given that the whole motivation behind Google’s decision, as I have tried to examine above, was not based on a calculated response to the best interest of Chinese netizens, it seems to me that we should not be overtly optimistic about the impact of this event. Sergey’s triumph over Schmidt, Kaifu’s leaving, unsatisfactory business performance in China, moral and potential future political support from the U.S. government… All of these factors play a big role in Google’s motivation in leaving China, and Google’s tie with the U.S. government in handling the situation, would especially result in repercussions from the Chinese government.

Now, Google has basically passed the ball to the CCP. I have to admit that , in the course of this discussion and my guarded criticism of Google, I subconsciously have a higher standard for Google. My thinking is simple, CCP is a bad boy, Google is a “don’t be evil” good boy, wouldn’t you also want to expect the good boy to live up to its standard, to be more honest, transparent and considerate of the interests of Chinese netizens. And in helping the bad boy to change, isn’t it sad that the good boy now decide to leave him alone and shout: I cannot bear you anymore!? But it can just be me, and my personal belief that you have to be especially persistent and strategic in changing a bad boy, and that committing to him yet leaving him alone later is a bad thing to do.

Two days ago, four leading Chinese internet entrepreneurs, called for some internet special zones in China without any firewall filtering during an IT leader Summit in Shenzhen. Like testing the water of free market back in the Seventies in Shenzhen, these people argued that China should also test the water of information freedom. The idea was immediately dismissed by the director of CNNIC for its “inappropriateness for our times”. Well, but people are pushing for it, and the truth is, internet in China is going to become free when it comes to the time that not doing that would result in CCP’s fall. Chinese people, most of them just newly out of poverty, are not yet as concerned with internet freedom as with their desire for more material benenfits, partly explains why life-style and social networking features are the key to success in China’s internet market. But they will eventually, after fully exercising their material “freedom”, and when it comes, the CCP would have to make a decision either to compromise to stay in the course, or to be left behind in the history.  For any one of us who is concerned with internet freedom in China then, what we should think is how to push for the progress.  Google’s exit might have spurred some awareness of censorship among the Chinese netizens, which would have positive effects on the progress.  But the problem is, the influence of this single event will fade, and after that Google would be just out of the exciting battles among internet companies, netizens and the government.

Google could have been the fifth supporter for special internet zones, and push for gradual change along with its Chinese competitors, who are also increasingly dissatisfied with the tight control. But Google has left….


Filed under demystify China's cyberspace, Uncategorized

NYT Magazine Article Misconception About the Composition of Chinese Netizens

On the Mar.7th issue of the NYTimes Magazine, an article named “China Cyberposse“, written by Tom Downey, offers an in-depth review of the “Human Flesh Search Engine” phenomenon on China’s cyberspace.   It is one of these valuable times that NYTimes runs something beyond the cliche about Chinese society, and offers insight about how people actually live their lives there.   Yet like most of the other NYTimes articles on China, there are just some little details here and there in the article that keeps on bugging you, and makes you feel like they are not the results of actual experience or careful research, but from pre-conceived judgments.   This comment from the article seems to be particularly misconceived to me:

“While less than a third of China’s population is on the Web, this B.B.S. activity is not as peripheral to Chinese society as it may seem. Internet users tend to be from larger, richer cities and provinces or from the elite, educated class of more remote regions and thus wield influence far greater than their numbers suggest.”

It seems to be a reasonable inference here:  less than a third of China’s population is on the web, and internet access requires certain income and education level, and thus netizens of China must be from richer regions or are the elites of remote places.

Yet as someone who surfs around China’s cyberspace everyday, I usually have the suspicions that the people who spend most time online in China, the most active of Chinese netizens who dig out stories of corrupted officials and excel at “human flesh searching”, are those who are not that privileged.   My basic assumption is that, if the netizens are the elites, and the biggest beneficiary of the current political and economical system, why do they have so much to vent, and why do they have so much incentive to say things against a system in which their interests are so invested?  It just seems counter-intuitive.   Plus if you look at some of the “trivial” yet most popular discussions online, ( usually on extra-marrital affairs or sexual explorations), you wonder, who exactly are those “elites” that have that much time to go online and talk about those “trivial” issues?

The other side of my instinct comes from my experience last summer doing research about the Chinese migrant workers (those who migrate from rural and remote areas to seek employment in big industrialized cities).  I traveled to a dozen of factories in the Yangtze-delta and Pearl-delta areas to gather data about the working and living condition of migrant workers.  One of the most striking thing I learned is how accessible internet is to the younger generation of migrant workers.  They usually use cell-phones to read news online and do instant-chatting, some of them even try to save up together to buy second-hand desktops to use in their dorms.   Their elders, however, when asked, usually make comments that they are too old for “such popular culture” and would rather save money to send home.  Thus you might argue income level are not the the predominant barriers for internet access, but a certain cultural conception of it.

Since the NYTimes article excerpt really runs against my instinct, I was trying to look for data to support my view.  CNNIC, China Network Information Center, gives out reports twice a year about the internet development in China.  The latest one, the 25th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, comes out in January 2010 ( but it has not been translated into English yet. You can access the English version of the 24th here ).

Three things I found in this report that can support my intuition:

1. The majority of China’s netizens, 52% are NOT from the top 10 provinces/cities with most GDP per capita.

2. The majority of China’s netizens, 75.8%,has only received high school education or less.

3. The majority of China’s netizens, 56.2%, has a disposable income less than RMB1500 ( $220), the most modest benchmark for what is considered to be middle-class in China.

I.  I searched for the list of cities/provinces in China that have the most GDP per capita, and here is the rank for 2009 with the number of their internet users ( those who live in those cities/provinces, not necessarily those who hold registration there, which means that if a migrant worker from Hunan went to Guangdong to seek employment and lived there for more than 6 months, he would be counted as an internet user in Guangdong, not Hunan).

Ranking of Provinces by GDP per capita GDP per capita Number of Internet Users Living in the Provinces
1. Shanghai
RMB 11320.41
2. Beijing
RMB 10298.30
3. Tianjin RMB 9295.48 5.64mil
4. Zhejiang
RMB 6582.88
5. Jiangsu
RMB 6437.91
6. Guangdong
RMB 5861.92
7. Neimeng
RMB 5467.30
8. Shandong
RMB 5262.96
9. Liaoning
RMB 5013.66
10. Fujian
RMB 4854.18
Sum 184.83mil

Since the total number of internet users up to December 2009, according to the CNNIC report, is 384 mil, it leaves people living in the richest Ten Places in China counting for 184.83/384=48% of China’s internet users, not even making up half  of the group.  Also, the fact that the CNNIC report counts the migrant workers as internet users in cities where they are working, means that internet users who are regular inhabitants in those most developed places are much less than 184.83mil.  And if you are not convinced that the migrant workers would count for a large sum of this 184.83 mil, please look for the chart in part III about the income level of Chinese netizens.

II. The chart below is the education level of internet users:                                                                                                       

The horizontal columns from left to right reads:  primary school and below; middle school; high school; vocational school; bachelor degree and higher.

This chart means that 8.8%+26.8%+40.2%=75.8% of the internet users have only received high school level or lower education.   Even for a country like China, where the  average education level is probably middle school or below, you wouldn’t call a high school graduate “an educated elites” .

Also an interesting trend to note is that the percentage of people who have only primary school or less education is increasing, while the percentage of college graduate is decreasing.   This just means that a large percentage of the college graduates have had access to internet for a while already, so it is harder for the group to increase their representation in the whole group.  On the other hand, more people who have primary school education or less have not been exposed to internet before, and thus this group has more potential to pull up their representation.

III.  The third chart is the income level distribution of China’s internet users;  the unit of income on the left is RMB, whose exchange rate to dollar is roughly 1 dollar = 6.8 RMB

There are many discussions, both domestically and internationally, about what should be the monthly income level for China’s middle class.  The most modest benchmark I find, is RMB1500, while others contest that it should be RMB 5000.   If we adopt the more radical standard, this would leave middle class only 5.6% of the internet users, which seems rather counter-factual to me.  But even if we use the modest benchmark, RMB 1500, middle class and above would only count for 43.7% of China’s netizens, not being the overwhelming majority.

There are of course issues with the accuracy people report their incomes.  The CNNIC report was conducted through phone interviews of 72,ooo people, and one can certainly imagine interviewees being modest to speak about their income levels in official surveys.  On the other hand, the RMB 1500 benchmark for middle class is definitely very, very modest as well.  Many of the migrant workers I interviewed in the past Summer, can earn up to 2500 Yuan/month, ( but of course through 16hr*6days of work every week), and I don’t see how they can be counted as the middle class in China.   So if we take the modestiy of numbers on both sides, they might actually balance out each other, leaving the “43.7%” result not too far off from reality.


The point o f this post might seem to be trivial, since it is not against the main argument of “China Cyberposse”.  Yet I think it is an important issue to bear in mind about who really are the majority of netizens in China.  Contrary to Downey’s point that it is because netizens are the elites that makes whatever happen on internet “less than peripheral”,  I think it is exactly because the netizens are the mass, and the most grass-root population, that makes them so powerful.  They suffer the most from the current system, and they really have so little to lose in this game to hold up to their rights.

Leave a comment

Filed under demystify China's cyberspace