Han Han is a 28-year-old bestselling author, racing driver and blogger who is a star of Chinese cyberspace. He is also one of the most outspoken critics of government censorship, and his blogposts are often deleted by censors. Nevertheless, his main blog has over 300m hits. In an online poll Han Han ran recently on his blog about a corrupt official, 210,000 people voted. Yet it is not just Han Han’s words that are so influential, but the internet technologies – searches, file-sharing, RSS, blogging, microblogging, image and video-sharing, social networking, etc – that allow them to spread freely, despite government censorship.
This week, Han Han blogged about Google’s closure of its China-based search engine and wrote: “China has 200 million internet users. If Google asked all of them if they want to see uncensored search results, I think this 200 million minus the number of [government paid] internet commentators will agree.” His post was soon deleted; however his words have been reposted by devoted readers. Just Google Han Han’s name: his supposedly censored words are still all over the Chinese cyberspace.
This is what China’s leaders most fear: the power of truth-telling among the Chinese population, which directly challenges their privilege, ideological control, and the legitimacy of the regime. The Chinese government has learned that it can’t merely target internet users, but must focus on information technologies, access to the network, and the companies that provide these tools.
That’s where Google enters the story. Google does not create content but makes information more accessible and organised, empowering users for connectivity and collaboration. The Chinese government, on the other hand, operates under a political agenda to control and dominate content and to keep oppositional voices fragmented. Surveillance of users and enforced self-censorship of companies is part of this overall strategy. This runs in direct contradiction to Google’s corporate ethic and business agenda, which includes protecting users’ privacy and gaining their trust.
Google’s decision to leave China rather than abide by intrusive government policies effectively marks the beginning of a cyberworld divided into the internet and the “Chinternet”, with the great firewall marking the boundary. Several top global websites, including Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as thousands of other websites, are no longer easily accessible.
But just as Google’s China story is not yet over, the China chapter of the internet story is just beginning. The transformative power of a global, open and participatory communications network will only grow, even through the great firewall. Google already has a huge number of loyal users in China, many of whom are increasingly unhappy with internet censorship. Removal of Google’s Chinese search engine to Hong Kong will create stronger demand inside China for censorship circumvention tools. Potential retaliatory measures by the government to block other popular Google services such as Gmail, Google Docs, Google Buzz, Google Wave, and Google Talk will only heighten this demand.
As a leading technology giant with a strong commitment to internet freedom, Google has the capacity to make its services continually available to Chinese netizens. Other technology companies and governments should join in this struggle to create a single, open and free internet. The final story is written by people like Han Han, who represent the irrepressible desire for truth, dignity and freedom. This spirit is what will ultimately topple the great firewall – with the assistance of innovative and unblockable internet technologies.
Xiao Qiang, director of China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley.