The war of words between the US and China has switched between the bold and the downright ridiculous in the week following Google’s threat to pull out of the Chinese internet market.
The Obama administration went further than ever before in its criticism of Beijing’s internet controls, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that companies such as Google should refuse to support "politically motivated censorship". Beijing, meanwhile, departed from its usual policy of silence when questioned about domestic political issues, launching a variety of attacks on the US for getting involved. At the other, more ridiculous end of the spectrum was Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, who claimed that China’s internet was "open" in the first response to Google’s allegations.
On Monday the tit-for-tat slagging match between Beijing and Washington got even more interesting, however, with news that China could be dragged before the WTO for breach of global trade rules over internet censorship. A US civil liberties group, the First Amendment Coalition, believes that censorship is in breach of China’s commitment to the WTO, under which it agreed to give unlimited access and equal treatment to foreign-based or foreign-owned businesses in many categories of services, including online services.
It is an option which has not been ruled out by the US Trade Representative, with spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh telling AFP that the issue was being considered. Furthermore, a recent report by the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels argues that internet services count as imports that China is supposed to be encouraging, even if they are delivered over a wire instead of in a shipping crate.
"The online market in China is simply too big for Europe and the US to let trade-distorting regulations pass without action. Victories at the WTO on this front would be wins both for commerce and for civil rights," the report said.
On the other hand, it would be foolish for internet companies with ambitions to start up in China to think that the only obstacle they face is censorship. While social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter – both of which are blocked – can claim to have been unfairly treated by Beijing’s tough censorship laws, others cannot. Ebay and Yahoo, and to a certain extent Google, failed to compete with their Chinese counterparts on primarily a business level, and many feel that their failings came largely from a lack of understanding of the local market.
It remains to be seen whether anything will come of the threat to take China to the WTO, although all but the most optimistic will think it unlikely. One interesting thing to have come out of the whole saga, however, is that even the most fawning of state-controlled publications have been openly talking about censorship in China. While the state media are unlikely to be debating the rights and wrongs of internet freedom, it is positive at least that they are finally – unlike the aforementioned Jiang Yu – accepting that it exists.