By Peter Foster
Bill Gates, the world’s richest man now re-cast as a global philanthropist, has pronounced his verdict on the Chinese internet row, telling the ABC television network’s Good Morning America that web censorship in China is ‘very limited’.
“The Chinese efforts to censor the internet have been very limited,” he said, “It’s easy to go around it, and so I think keeping the Internet thriving there is very important.”
There are many things to be said about the extent and nature of web censorship in China, but “very limited” is not one them.
As Preston Gall at Computer World put’s it.
“He’s wrong. The Great Firewall of China is not ‘very limited;’ if it were limited the Chinese government would not bother to spend the amount of time and money it does enforcing Internet censorship.”
While it is true that “scaling the wall” using a Virtual Proxy Network (VPN) is relatively simple, the truth is that most people in China don’t know how to do it.
It is also true that most people in China can’t be bothered to do it – which is part of the subtle effectiveness of the system. The Great Firewall is far enough back from ordinary life that most of China’s chatters and gamers are not inconvenienced by it, but that doesn’t mean censorship is limited.
On the contrary, it is omnipresent, hanging over the Chinese internet (and society) like a brooding cloud, shaping the actions and habits of its users even when it is not overt.
When Chinese netizens do “hit the wall” – if protesting over shoddily-built schools flattened in the Sichuan Earthquake or attempts to stop the craze for World of Warcraft gaming – they are quick to vent their anger and frustration, and have all sorts of inventive puns and euphemisms for doing so.
(Check out this brilliant satirical video by Chinese Warcraft gamers for some light relief on this front).
The point is that China’s government isn’t interested in open debate when it comes to matters of its own authority – whether on the internet or in print and TV – and does everything in its power to smother that debate. Including locking people up.
That is not an invention of the Western media, it’s a fact, as Liu Xioabo discovered this Christmas when he was given 11 years in jail for circulating his Charter 08 call for greater democracy.
The coverage of the Google row is a perfect example of where the Chinese government has worked tirelessly to muzzle real debate (which was evident in the early stages as I reported in an earlier post) resorting to name-calling about America’s ‘information imperialism’.
Gates implies that the need to ‘keep the internet thriving in China’ is more important than worrying about censorship. Google made that calculation in 2006 when it decided to enter the Chinese market, but now rejects that decision. Why?
Don’t be fooled by talk that Google was a ‘failure’ in China. It wasn’t. How many other foreign companies that set up in China four years ago can claim market share over 35 per cent? None.
If internet censorship in China is really so ‘limited’, Mr Gates should ask himself why Google arrived at that decision, and why his own Government has risked souring relations with its largest trading partner over the issue?
Of course, the mandarins in Beijing will be thrilled by Mr Gates’s comments which could have been written for him by a Xinhua leader-writer and perhaps, as Douglas A McIntyre observes at 24/7 Wall Street, that’s precisely the point.
He sees Gates’s comments as a shameless attempt to curry favour with Beijing at a time when Microsoft’s Bing search engine is eyeing up Google’s probably soon-to-be vacated share of the Chinese search market.
“Gates understands as well as anyone that if Google leaves China it will be an extraordinary opportunity for Microsoft’s Bing search engine to gain market share in the world’s largest internet market,” writes McIntyre, “He is taking the public opportunity to tell the Chinese that he is their ally and that Google is not.”
I was thinking that this was really too cynical, but then I read Gates comments to the New York Times “bits” blog in which Gates said he was unimpressed and perplexed by Google’s so-called ‘stand’ over censorship.
“They’ve done nothing and gotten a lot of credit for it,” was Gate’s observation. That sounds dangerously like sour grapes to me.
Even if he doesn’t mean to, Gates is presenting himself as a China stooge and a shameless opportunist. My betting is that this will backfire horribly – for him and Microsoft – on both sides of the Great Firewall.