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Google Is Right on China

Progress Snapshot
Release 2.5 January 2006

by James V. DeLong *

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Google has agreed to submit to censorship of search results in exchange for operating in China.

The full scope of the censorship is a work in progress. Wired says: "To obtain the Chinese license, Google agreed to omit web content that the country's government finds objectionable. Google will base its censorship decisions on guidance provided by Chinese government officials." And C|Net News ' Declan McCullagh's research found: "Many Web sites censored from Google's Chinese results touch on topics known to be unpopular with the Communist Party: the Tiananmen protest and massacre, political criticism in general, Tibet, Taiwan and Falun Gong (a growing movement that combines traditional Chinese breathing exercises with meditation and that's been renounced by the Chinese government as a cult). But others are more puzzling, such as jokes and alcohol."

As a result, Google is being roasted in the flames of an outraged Internet, accused of selling out its "Don't Be Evil" corporate birthright for a mess of Yuan.

About the only tepidly good word came from George Mason University economist Thomas Hazlett: "the terms of the agreement struck will push modern communications yet further in a basically authoritarian society. That triggers an underlying dynamic that ultimately, will undermine restrictions, allowing civil liberties -- not Chinese government censors -- to triumph."

My view is considerably more sympathetic both to Google and to China and its leaders than is the Internet consensus.

The Chinese are undertaking simultaneously several of the most difficult tasks that any nation can attempt. They are loosening the grasp of an authoritarian regime; fostering rapid economic development; and evolving the proper form of government for a huge population of widely varying sophistication and skill in the technological age, bearing in mind the history and culture of China.

Were I a Chinese leader, I would be thinking along the following lines.

We have no model for this daring and difficult enterprise, even if we think that in the long-term we need some variation of a democratic state. The West's assumption that all we need do is ape it represents a presumption that would be amusing if the issue were not so serious, because democracy in the West is in serious jeopardy.

Look at Russia, where the recommended shock treatment approach was a disaster. The lesson may be that converting to a more capitalistic state requires economic loosening before political loosening -- perestroika before glasnost . The rule of law may have to start at the top and then extend downward, and be followed by a broad voting franchise only after the basics of industrial development are firmly in place. This was, after all, the pattern of the Western democracies. Magna Carta was for barons, not peasants.

A hard-eyed look at the West also reveals more question marks than answers.

Will Europe be democratic in 20 years? The EU structure cuts in the other direction. And the trend of European democracy is that the dependents on the government are electorally dominant, able to resist any reform of entitlements. The result, within a decade, will probably be a revolt of the young, who will see themselves as heavily taxed to maintain a welfare state that will not exist for them, and that allows them very limited opportunities to improve their lot. But the revolt cannot be electoral, precisely because the young are outnumbered, which means it must be anti-democratic. And probably nasty.

The U.S. as a democratic model? An interesting case, that's also full of problems. The nation has an increasing political class of government workers , better paid than the private sector by 50 percent, and capable of combining with other dependents to resist changes. It has increasing corruption among politicians of both parties, who have gerrymandered themselves into safe seats supported by massive pork, using public money to buy support from both interest groups and short-sighted corporations, and who are increasingly using campaign finance controls to censor political opposition to this system.

From an economic point of view, the whole U.S. is turning into a massive anti-commons, where everyone has veto power over every form of productive investment. It has shut down much of its manufacturing and extractive industries. A good symbol is that is a nation with an energy crisis that cannot even find a spot to build a refinery or an LNG terminal. It is now turning on even such innocuous industries as Wal-Mart, for heaven's sake!

Democracy in the U.S. was founded on a sophisticated interlayering of different types of governance in different situations, with the types appropriate to the decisions and interests involved. It is an irony of successful democracy that the whole must be subject to democratic control, but within this framework there must be many undemocratic decision processes, ranging from representative assemblies to market-driven businesses to law-bound adjudication.

The U.S. is increasingly in thrall to a kind of plebiscitary democracy, often by public opinion poll,a residue of the mindless 1960s, where every decision, right down to guilt or innocence in a criminal case, should be decided by vote.

Furthermore, the disturbing trends are getting worse, not better. The technologies of instantaneous communication are rendering the whole nation increasingly vulnerable to that fatal disease of democracy feared since the ancient Greeks -- demagoguery and rule by mass whim, a trend abetted by the glorification of the mass mind and by slogans about the superiority of the crowd. There is some wisdom in crowds, but "it's hard to aggregate the wisdom of the crowd without aggregating [its] madness as well."

Far from a model, the U.S. may be running on the fumes of its human capital of gifted and entrepreneurial people, but is far from clear that current trends will allow for the continuing replenishment of this class. And the nation is pinning a lot on high-tech, since it seems bent on suppressing other forms of economic activity.

But China has gifted and entrepreneurial people, too, and we also like high-tech while taking a more benign view of manufacturing and extraction. Our rise will increase the already severe future strains on the U.S. Will the U.S. be democratic in 50 years? History will tell.

So, what is a Chinese leader dedicated to the welfare of the people to do, given this incredible uncertainty, and the lack of convincing models? The wisest course seems to be: Focus on perestroika above glasnost . Move cautiously. Avoid any threat of losing control to demagoguery and mob rule, which inevitably ends in re-authoritarianism. Develop the rule of law before an extended franchise. And keep maneuvering in the fantastically complicated situation involving the modernists, the PLA , the old Mao-ists, the modern equivalent of regional warlords, the rising demands of the new economic classes, and the restlessness of the people who see that a better life is possible.

And given this Chinese view, what should Google do? Google should do what Google does, which is search engines. Google is not a Chinese leader, and it is not the role or duty of Google to tell China how to rule itself, or to tell the Chinese leader dedicated to the betterment of the people how to act, even when what the Chinese government does goes against the grain of American views of free speech.

In the end, search engines, even truncated ones, will contribute to the economic and political development of China , as Hazlett noted. The working out of this story will be one of the great tales of human history, for tragedy or triumph, depending on how it goes.

So Google should happily contribute to this effort, doing what it does, and avoiding the hubris of thinking it is responsible for China , or that it knows the answers. In this situation, good and evil are not self-evident categories.

Berkeley economist Brad DeLong is fond of saying that it is very important to the peace of the world that in 50 years school children in India and China are taught that the West did everything it could to help the economic development of these nations. Google should focus on being a lesson in these textbooks.

- This article appeared in TCS Daily on January 31, 2006.

* James V. DeLong is a Senior Fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington , D.C. This article represents his own opinions, which may not be shared by PFF, its staff, or it directors.




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