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Op-Ed: Google vs. China - The silence screams

By Paul Wallis     Jan 13, 2010 in Internet
Google reported yesterday that it was considering shutting down its Chinese operations after a series of “sophisticated cyberattacks” targeting the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. China has stated that it’s investigating.
Even the reporting of this issue is being carried out with some major difficulties. Google and China are being terse in their public comments. Xinhua made the only visible statement on behalf of the Chinese government, and Google hasn’t been saying a lot beyond its initial statement. Chinese reporting of the issue is almost non-existent outside the Xinhua response, although several major news sources did report the original announcement.
The issues are bigger and broader than the situation. Chinese censorship is one thing, and most of the major league internet companies have cited at one time or another that they have to abide by the laws of the countries in which they operate, which is perfectly true. Cyberattacks, however, are another thing. They can’t even theoretically be considered lawful.
The legal position is dubious, to say the least. A situation in which a specific group of politically sensitive people are targeted doesn’t exactly engender confidence in the business environment. If a government is conducting an operation against your clients, using your services, what are you supposed to do? The available options are “stay or go”.
The story so far from Google is that 34 Silicon Valley companies were attacked, and “may” have penetrated security and obtained “corporate data and source codes”. Google states it lost no data of its own. Adobe also reported a cyberattack on Wednesday.
That information can also be read as “systematic cyberattack requiring a lot of resources and the ability to deal with 34 security systems”. Google has cause for concern, by any standards.
China’s silence has a few facets which also need to be understood. There are multiple relationships, internal and external, in this situation. China is a complex place. The hardline Party hacks, rather than the more advanced, more pragmatic Chinese political hierarchy, are the usual source of these pre Cold War type of situations. The attacks on Falun Gong, for example, are an example of the hysterical xenophobia of this faction.
The social environment has long since moved on. The Chinese people and their leaders are no longer uneducated peasants, and the hardliners are becoming a vanishing minority. China’s middle classes, in contrast, are highly educated, and have no xenophobic tendencies. Quite the opposite, they’re proud of China’s achievements, and don’t feel threatened by “the customers”. Most Chinese under 30 don’t even remember the bad old days. Chinese business, mainly American educated, is also unlikely to enthuse about this return to the 1950s as a potential loss of trade.
The hardliners may have overreached themselves, in this case. The incident is now building up into a diplomatic issue. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has stated that the US looks to China for an explanation. Internet commentary has run the gamut from largely pro-Google to a lone pro-Chinese commentator Rao Jin of Anti-CNN, who feels that Google was under pressure from the Secretary of State.
It has to be said that if this is a clumsy way of bringing up the human rights issues in China, that’s not the way to get a positive response. The cyberattacks are a blundering “Lao Ma” (old horse/old mother) effort, which only a truly naïve person would assume could possibly go undetected. They need to be addressed.
Any debate on human rights, however, can be easily avoided, as usual, using the same macros as the last 20-50 years of “dialog” on this subject. If anyone wants a result, they should stick to the cyberattacks, and not allow diversion into non-topics where China can claim sovereign rights.
Unless confined to a purely case based scenario, China’s options for a negative response include:
Attacks didn’t come from Chinese government sources.
Attacks were by remote operators using Chinese access.
Attacks were politically motivated to discredit China.
China isn’t targeting human rights activists.
Etc, etc.
If the US sticks to asking for a report on the situation regarding the cyberattacks, the response will have to be more specific.
Chinese users have been leaving flowers outside Google’s office in Beijing. That says a lot. China doesn’t want to return to the paranoia of the past.
Personal note: I’m inclined to believe Google. I used to use Xinhua a lot, until I picked up a Trojan last year, and then got repeated blocks on the site from my anti virus software. Not exactly a sophisticated attack, but having a non-Chinese IP might have produced that result. The stupidity of this is that I’m a Sinophile, not a redneck serial anti-Chinese writer.
This is China's biggest boom in 500 years, and the idea that China can continue the Emperor Qianlong's position forever is absurd. Qianlong said in a letter to the British monarch "...We have no need of barbarian manufactures..." That sort of insularity almost destroyed China for 200 years. This sort simply embarrasses it, but it could do more damage if allowed to continue.
China has a relationship with the world which is literally changing the world. Modern China should make a point of removing these antiquated obstacles to that relationship. The Qing are long gone, and their policies should also be gone.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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