Worry about the Internet in China

If you’re not in China, it may be hard to imagine the extent of the worry caused by Google’s recent announcement that it may just pack up and leave China. Sure, you can analyze the political and financial angles, but for most of us, this recent news forces our minds to leap straight to the worst-case scenario that will affect us personally: what if all Google services get blocked in China?

Many (including this Chinese language summary of the situation) are concluding that using a VPN might just have to become an essential “always-on” part of using the Internet in China. My fear is that if that day comes and VPN usage becomes so widespread, it might not be long before that method too is struck down by new GFW technology. I’m really afraid of being stuck in that information void.

It’s not just about one big company operating in China. It’s about how in recent years, various internet services have made us feel much more connected to our loved ones half a world away. It’s about how the internet is becoming such an integral part of our lives, through email, through IM, through social services, through smartphones… and wanting to be a part of that progress. No company is more key to that progress than Google.

A Chinese friend of mine recently admitted to me what I didn’t want to say myself: “if they go so far as to block all Google services in China, I don’t even want to stay here anymore.

This is how deep the worry runs for many of us.

If you’re not up on the situation, I recommend these articles:

Google and China: superpower standoff (a good blog post roundup on the Guardian)
Earth-shattering news and a faked interview (Danwei’s angle)
Google’s China Stance: More about Business than Thwarting Evil (TechCrunch)
Soul Searching: Google’s position on China might be many things, but moral it is not (TechCrunch)
Google v. Baidu: It’s Not Just about China (TechCrunch)
The impact of Google’s bold move


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Your friend’s fear – and yours as well – makes sense, as it’s almost as if this Google thing is a litmus test for how much China does truly want to engage in ideas with the outside world (by ‘China’, I here mean the authorities, not the people). By the same token, it might also indicate whether the powers-that-be are getting more and more imperious, thinking they can have an economy as open as the US and yet, simultaneously, maintain a North Korean-esque strangehold on ideas and communication. And I too, would not stick around for such a grizzly scenario.

  2. I really hope that it works out so that Google doesn’t have to leave. Maybe if Google succeeds it will set a precedent for twitter, Facebook, Chinese wikipedia etc. to be available in China again.

  3. […] If you want another foreigner's perspective on this whole thing, check out this great post at Sinosplice about how this affects China, with further links to news […]

  4. Yea it will suck.

    Think how the poor people in the Xinjiang province feel. We were there in Sept., and you couldn’t even text anyone, let alone try and get internet.

  5. Google is so integral to my life I don’t see a way of living without it!
    Search, Email, RSS Reader, Wave, Adsense, Adwords.

  6. Anything think CCP will cave in to Google’s pressure, he/she must be dreaming.

    There are plenty of search engines that are still available. Google has excellent products. However, it does not mean people in China cannot get by without it.

    Even it is totally CCP’s fault, google’s stunt is really the wrong step to start with. You can not blackmail a government. A government will not cave in to a pressure of any single company.

  7. Anyone think CCP will cave in to Google’s pressure, he/she must be dreaming.

    There are plenty of search engines that are still available. Google has excellent products. However, it does not mean people in China cannot get by without them. BTW, not many Chinese people can simply say “moving away”. It is not as simple as that.

    Even it is totally CCP’s fault, google’s stunt is really the wrong step to start with. You can not blackmail a government. A government will not cave in to a pressure of any single company even it is the government’s fault. Let alone we are dealing with CCP now.

  8. If anyone in the Shanghai area is interested in better understanding these developments, I will be happy to lend you my battered copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. It is more than a thousand pages of often dense prose, but China is only up to about page 350 now. The censorship and rabid nationalism have begun, and they’ve had their glorious Olympics, but the reunification of Taiwan the Sudetenland has not happened yet. And all this has happened with a pretty decent economy. Wait till the inflation kicks in! When the Great Hall of the People gets burned down by “splittists,” and the Uighurs have to start wearing arm-bands, those wonderful direct Shanghai-Newark flights will look pretty sweet.

    This is a lovely country in so many ways. But in the end, I come back to the last line in that classic Jack Nicholson movie– “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

  9. Chris Simpson Says: January 15, 2010 at 9:43 am

    i reckon in the future there will not be a blacklist like there is now because it’s too long, hard to regulate and messy, but instead a China approved list of websites. ISP will need to be in on the deal of course, shouldnt be too hard to implement. Also CPP would love to be able to slap on a fee and get more levage over any foreign university or company that wants to “operate” a webite in china.

    Plus to the chinese reckons, I think wildspread outrage, reported by some media, is overblown. A survay around my office found that only 1 person had heard of google-gate, noting something vague about hiliary clinton, while the rest told me baidu is fine. Outside the major urban areas i reckon 90% of chinese will think the white error screen is a technical error or at worst “weird”. So i really dont think there will be a backlash, only 8 nerds with flowers in Beijing.

  10. I am worried too about this kind of comment “Google is so integral to my life I don’t see a way of living without it! ”

    Google is cool, yes, but it is only a company. To trust them with everything you do in a computer is not a perfect solution either.

  11. Frank,

    I agree. The question is not whether the CCP will give in to Google (they won’t), but whether or not they will start to block Google services, and on what scale. Part of the genius of Google’s services is how interconnected they all are, and if the CCP starts blocking too many of Google’s servers, it’s going to affect everything.

  12. To pete:

    It is outrageous to compare China with Nazi Germany. Obviously, you have not done much study about China history and Philosophy. China’s goal is not to expand as much territory as possible or dominates the whole world.

    If that is our goal, China should have already done that before your Columbus reach America. Remember, we have a far stronger fleet during Ming Dynasty.

    On the contrary, Germany launched two world wars within 30 years. China was invaded by various european countries, russia and japan during most of the past 170 years.

    At the same time, you bet China will reclaim Taiwan. You know why, it has been an integral part of China for many centuries, during which, there is not even a country called USA yet.

    • Wasn’t Taiwan only taken by China because the Manchurians invaded from the North at the fall of the Ming dynasty, late 17th century? Hardly “many centuries”…

  13. John:

    I do agree CCP, which is our government, has done something wrong here. However, to publicly challenge a government over such issue won’t fly in China. I do not think it will fly in many Asian countries.

    Obviously, Google’s leaders have not learned how to do business in China yet. That is also why they are not successful even with all the advanced technology.

    On the other side, there are many successful U.S. German, Korean, Japan, French businesses and etc in China. Maybe Google need to learn something from other businesses how to deal with the CCP.

    Just like the Akmal case, the minute Gordon Brown and his cabinet try to challenge China with all of those craps, that drug smuggler is a dead meat. Now Google need to find a way out. You bet it won’t be easy.

  14. Well, the next step will be the globalization of Baidu, Tudou & Co.

    Google Apps don’t work? Don’t worry wait for the Baidu Apps. And the Baidu maps. Of course, you need to persuate your loved ones to use those, too. That is not the worst approach for an internationalization strategy.

    Hey, maybe the PRC government can open there treasure chest of intelligence information resting on their hard drives to give the Baidu data mining algorithms a further boost.

  15. Why the regrets over Google? When I was in China, none of their products worked. Blogspot, Youtube, Google Earth, Google News etc were all blocked or severely disabled in China. What is there to miss?

  16. […] agree with John that acquiring a virtual private network (VPN) will before long become de rigeur for China’s […]

  17. Regarding your twitter link to what Baidu will look like if Google leaves, the funny thing is, that’s exactly what AltaVista, Lycos and all the other pre-Google search engines used to look like before Google came and swept them all away. The only difference was those search engines placed the search bar under all the ads so you had to scroll past the ads before you could search for anything.

  18. @Frank

    Not to throw water on the fire, but wasn’t Inner Mongolia an integral part of Mongolia for many years?

  19. @Frank

    Not to throw gasoline on the fire, but wasn’t Inner Mongolia an integral part of Mongolia for many years?

  20. @Ben Ross

    I am not sure how familiar you are with Chinese history. There used to be one Mongolia which is all part of Qing Empire and later Republic of China.

    When Qing Empire collapses and Russia tried to get Mongolia out of China under its control. There were lot of issues arised then, e.g. Tibet, Xinjiang and other areas that were controlled by different foreign powers. Japan even wanted to snap The whole Northeastern Provinces and ShangDong penisula as well.

    Of course, none of the Chinese government recognized such and so far we have almost all the territory issues solved except Taiwan and Mongolia. Mongolia is a far complicated issue and Russia’s long time control makes mongolia people very hostile to Chinese people even though Inner Mongolia people are of the same race with them and also Chinese.

    Anyway, if they do not want to be back, I do not think China will care too much now. However, Taiwan is a must claim. If CCP let Taiwan go away, I do not think there is any CCP left in China.

    In the end, what is your point then?

  21. This is the best “apolitical” blog ever. 🙂

  22. @Frank

    My point is that borders change and you can never make a border claim based on the fact that “area A used to be a part of country B.” Taiwan was originally colonized by the Dutch. It was later controlled for many years by the Qing Dynasty. For 50 years, it was an integral part of Japan. For many years, most of modern China was an integral part of the Mongol Empire. For thousands of years the current land of the United States was home to Indigenous peoples. European countries shift their boundaries every time a new war breaks out. My point is that none of it means squat in terms of who controls what today.

    Please speak up if you want Frank and me to step outside.

  23. @Ben

    It seems that you have no clue about China history and eastern philosophy. I am not sure whether you have heard the following sentence regarding Chinese history: 分久必和,和久必分。

    Taiwan has been controlled by the Wu empire back to the three kingdom era. In China history, if China was divided, each later dynasty carries the duty to reunite China. That is why we have the United China under Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing. We also have divided China within those eras.

    Before Dutch stole Taiwan, it has been under China’s control for thousand years.

    About the Mongol Empire or Qing Empire, they used to be considered non-Chinese. However, they chose to adapt Chinese Culture and became Chinese, the same for Tang Empire as well.

    Each Chinese have the burden to united the motherland and it has nothing to do with CCP. If during CCP’s ruling time and Taiwan is gone, I bet CCP won’t rule for long. All CCP will considered historical sinners.

    BTW, you can not consider Japan’s invasion of Taiwan as integral part of Japan. By your logic, if a strong country invades a small country and occupies for some years, it becomes integral part of that strong country? That is why we never recognized Hongkong’s status and Macau’s status before even it was stolen by U.K. and Portugal for almost 100 years.

    In addition, you also need to tell the difference between integral parts of China and affiliates of China. There is only one emperor in history under China’s integral parts. However, those affiliates can have its own rulers but need to 朝贡 to China, e.g. Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar and etc. For the comes and goes of those affiliates, we just do not care that much.

    I understand where you come from. You speak that way because you are not Chinese. If you do not trust me, why don’t do some survey, ask 100 Chinese (mainland Chinese) and see how many of them are OK to let Taiwan go. To increase your accuracy, you can even increase your sample size. I bet majority will agree with me. It is not your country, such important matter does not concern you that much. That is why you can say it so lightly.

    • Hi Frank,

      I don’t know Ben personally but I have been impressed with his writing. He may be too modest to say so, but he has a rich knowledge of the Chinese language and intellectual traditions.

      I, however, have never been accused of modesty. Maybe you can review some of my work to see whether I “obviously have not done much study about China history and Philosophy.”

      Quoting (or in your case, misquoting) a classical allusion to make a point is not really an appeal to logic. For example, “Look before you leap!” and “He who hesitates is lost” are both wonderful proverbs. But which of them is the best application to a public policy issue such as, for example, war? We can exchange classical allusions and witty quotes “until the cows come home.” It may be best to follow the advice of Chairman Deng, and 实事求是. We should see the world as it is, and doing our best to improve it.

      It’s so easy for us to become attached to vague concepts like nationalism, brand loyalty, favorite sports team, etc. It is worthwhile to meditate on the paradox of “The Ship of Theseus.” Stated simply, the riddle asks when something ceases to be what it once was.

      For example, I claim to be a fan of the sports team “Manchester United”. But then Beckham leaves, and the owner changes, and the team moves to a different city. New players join, some leave. Five years later, I still call myself a fan of that team. But in what meaningful way is the team I now like the same as the “original” team?

      With countries it’s the same. George Washington and I would both claim to love America. But his America was a slave-based, pre-industrial society based mostly on the East Coast of the modern nation. Since his time so many things have changed. In what meaningful way is my America the same as his? Similarly, in what meaningful way is a modern Chinese person a descendant of a person living, for example, in Chang’an during the Tang dynasty, or in Hangzhou during the Qing? Your spoken language, written language, dress, and attitudes are all different, nearly unrecognizable. In this light, the claim of “5,000 years of history” seems hard to justify.

      All such attachments are in fact a distraction.

      And as far as doing a survey of X number of Chinese, I agree, many people will strongly claim many things. But ask how many of them are actually willing to give up their job, their lover, their security and comfort and join the army for a few thousand RMB per month and a good chance of injury or death, all in the name of “defending the motherland.” Few people take that offer, for good reason. Anyone who calls for war but is unwilling to fight (or send their family to fight) is a chickenhawk. This type of person is the lowest form of life, utterly unworthy of respect.

  24. It should be: 分久必合,合久必分。

    To be honest, about such sensitive matter, I would suggest avoiding serious discussion with another Chinese intellectuals. There was a survey before regarding what China should do if Taiwan dare to declare independence: more than 95% of the polls result says we should start reclaiming Taiwan right away by force. Trust me, if CCP leaders become Chicken then, a coup will definitely happen.

    We Chinese can tolerate a lot of hardship but we never forget history. That is why we still integrate Opium war and the rape of Nanking into our history book. It is not due to the fact we want to revenge actually. It is due to the fact that we learn there will be no voice for a weak China and they is why we want to develop faster and stronger. We will not let history repeat.

  25. @Frank-
    Let’s stop taking up space on John’s blog. If you want to continue this conversation, e-mail me at bensinchina at yahoo dot com. I’ll reply to your comments above. By the way, please do not begin a comment with “It seems you have no clue about Chinese history” just because we have a different viewpoint. I would never start a sentence 因为你不是美国人所以你可能不太了解美国的制度美国的文化。

  26. 强烈支持Ben Ross同志。


  27. jacklee, 让你妈逼的脑残了? Says: January 23, 2010 at 11:02 am

    如题, 不过请不要随意理解和扭曲字面意思的意思. 因为我只是想讲个笑话给你听.

    一对年轻的恋人吵架, 男人说: 我们到现在还没有结婚,这都是你妈逼的!
    女人很生气,说: 怎么可能是我妈! 明明就是你妈逼得!!!
    男: 你妈逼的!
    女: 你妈逼的!你妈逼的!你妈逼的!

    所以,jacklee, Ben Ross说了这么多,但是并不让人反感,那只是每个人的出发点和观点不同,但是你,jacklee, 你只说了两句, 却让路人甲乙丙丁戊戍戌都觉得过分.

    其实你的各种脑残我们都可以原谅你, 但是你不吃药就跑出来乱吠那就是你的不对了.归根到底, 这都是你妈逼的. 你 妈 逼 的 妈 逼 的 逼 的 的. <—这是回音

  28. jacklee, 让你妈逼的脑残了? Says: January 23, 2010 at 11:05 am

    特别声明,联系上下文,我没有讲任何一句所谓的[人身攻击], 因为中文就是可以让人理解的很多面, 这是它迷人的地方,看你往那方面想了.

  29. @Ben
    I am glad to comply.

    You are not worthy to talk to.

  30. My apologies for jumping into a thread that did die down a bit, but something Frank said really did bother me, the politics/history aside.

    you said
    “To be honest, about such sensitive matter, I would suggest avoiding serious discussion with another Chinese intellectuals.”

    I have lived here for many years, and I have talked about sensitive issues with people, including, “intellectuals.” I assume by your use of “intellectual” here you mean someone who is educated, or a ‘thinker’ or whatever.
    Anyway, your suggestion hints at some kind of warning… that the “Chinese intellectuals” will do something terrible if I have a serious discussion with them about serious issues.
    But… in my experience, I have never found that to be the case. I have had disagreements with intellectuals here about sensitive issues, but the results were hardly terrible.
    Most intellectuals will be passionate about their beliefs, to be sure, but shouldn’t the spirit of an intellectual endeavor include the possibility of disagreement?

  31. First, there is no hidden threat at all. You totally mis-read what I mean.

    Second, there are many sensitive issues (human rights, news control, birth control, election, party systems and etc) that can be discussed between intellectuals of China and that of West. I have done that many times as well. I have never indicated that such issues can not be discussed. Of course there may be disagreement, otherwise what are we discussing about?

    The only thing I indicate that you won’t have such a happy discussion when you indicate China should not take Taiwan back and Taiwan is not part of China. When it comes to Taiwan, we will have disagreement and we Chinese do not care your disagreement. If you still insist, your Chinese part may shut down the topics totally with you before it is too heated.

  32. Don’t worry about VPN’s. Banks and businesses need them to make secure transactions. That’s why they exist. They are a critical part of commerce. I think big bro could care less if a few expats use them for other reasons. Just don’t tell too many Chinese about them 😉

  33. I hate China’s internet with a passion.
    It blocks everything.
    Even right now, lately, international sites won’t work.
    Fuck that. Only Chinese sites work.
    And i can’t speak China </3

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