The past couple of weeks have shown us something definitive in the world of search, freedom, and censorship: Google is the scion of good and China is the Evil Empire, worse than a New York Yankees team with Darth Vader, Cruella DeVille, and “Mighty Casey” Jason Voorhees manning the outfield. Right?
The debate over the always sticky subject of censorship and authoritarianism has reached “raging” levels this week, with Google pulling out of mainland China, the Chinese government blocking Google, and the United States government waggling its finger at Microsoft and Yahoo! for daring to do business in China *gasp* the Chinese way. Looking at it from a western perspective, the math is simple: China=bad, Google=good.
And therein lies the problem. Beyond the Google brouhaha, China is inherently confusing to western government officials, bloggers, and businesspeople. Whereas the United States (here representing “the West”) is built on, and trumpets loudly, the freedom of the individual, China… well, China is not. China is a collectivist culture, meaning that, to quote a great philosopher of our time, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
Under China’s collectivist structure, individual freedoms come secondary (tertiary?) to the continued success of the nation, which is interpreted as success of the regime and of the economy. All the claims that freedom of information is an inalienable right? In America, that’s true. In China, the definition of “right” is completely different.
Personally, I think that individual freedom wins out eventually in any society. It won’t work, however, if it’s external forces trying to shoehorn their priorities into the society in question.
Let’s get one thing straight: Google is running a business play. Their revenue from China is (for Google) inconsequential, and the PR they receive from western media by “taking a stand against censorship” is invaluable. They’re not out to fundamentally change Chinese culture – or, at least, they shouldn’t be.
If and when the Chinese people are ready for the individualistic, freedom-loving type of society most of the West prizes, they’ll create it internally. They’ll defend it that much more stringently having created it themselves, fought for it, and perhaps lost friends and loved ones over it.
In the meantime, painting China as this horrible place because it censors the Internet (sort of) is not only pointless, but potentially damaging. People need to understand that the Chinese people are the ones to decide whether or not their rights are being trampled, not high-minded scholars and journalists from a completely different culture.