On March 8, western investors and the Chinese government came together at the United Nations headquarters in New York to unveil a product that derives its name from the Swahili phrase “no worries.” The new product, an internet search engine named Accoona, however, causes ample reason for concern. Beijing’s grip on the media and expression ranks among the tightest in the world and their control of the internet is no different. With little sign of relaxing its censorship policies and the China Daily Information Company’s partnership with Accoona, it appears that the greatest instrument in the advancement of free speech will fail to breakdown the information barrier surrounding the People’s Republic of China.
With the introduction of the internet in China in the 1990’s, the hope was – and still remains to a degree – that the expansion of internet activity would cause the information monopoly of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to crack and the regime subsequently would be forced to accept a more liberal exchange of ideas. This clearly has not transpired, and censorship of the internet in China continues to suppress the availability of objective information. The nongovernmental organizations Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders have ranked the Chinese 177th (out of 194) and 159th (of 167) respectively with regards to press freedom. Thus, China’s internet control apparatus has creatively been dubbed the “Great Firewall of China.”
Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders noted in her February 15 testimony to the House International Relations Committee: “Most authoritarian regimes try to control what their citizens read and do online, but China is far and away the world champion.” Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and other American companies have a large stake in the expanding Chinese market and famously have been struggling with the complexities of doing business with Beijing. Technology and training have come from companies based in the United States and Europe that allow the Chinese regime to monitor and censure internet activity with particular emphasis on protecting the “security, honor and interests of the motherland.” To this, an estimated thirty to forty thousand Chinese are employed by the government to control internet activity and American companies are coming under increasing pressure to make hard choices.
China is home to over 100 million internet users – up from just thirty-four million in 2002 – and that number will inevitably expand. In fact, the market is so attractive that Google’s China site virtually erases any critical themes of the regime such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and sites dealing with issues relating to democracy and human rights, as well as certain portrayals of events in Tibet, Taiwan, and the western province of Xinjiang. Additionally, Yahoo! has allegedly assisted the Chinese government in tracking down at least two users whose internet activities the state considered damaging to the national interest. The degree of success of the government to stamp out all material it deems offensive with their “Great Firewall” has damaged American diplomatic efforts to promote democracy and individual rights both in China and around the globe. However, this wall could prove as difficult to topple as the one that divided Berlin for nearly four decades.
An obstacle to Western efforts to encumber Beijing’s freedom to censure the internet could very well be the growth of Accoona. The July 2004 agreement between Accoona and the China Daily Information Company cemented a twenty-year agreement providing the New Jersey based search engine with exclusive rights to become the official provider for ChinaDaily.com. Essentially a branch of the State Council of Information, the government-owned China Daily is simply another instrument in the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine. With over five million viewers a day, the Chinese news site will provide Accoona with a considerable market-share in the country’s internet search engine sector, and that very partnership will likely result in an expanding government influence on Accoona.
A report by Freedom House released in February illustrates “how a system of control that originated under the classic totalitarian conditions is being adjusted, refined, and modernized to meet the needs of a political leadership that wants to enjoy the benefits of the global economy without jeopardizing its complete political domination.” Accoona is a textbook example of how the CCP hopes to expand the Chinese economy while suppressing the freedom of expression that often comes with globalization. Accoona was, in part, designed to help provide businesses and individuals with a tool to locate and identify companies around the globe, with a particular emphasis in helping Chinese businesses take advantage of the 2008 Olympics scheduled to be held in Beijing.
Thus, the mechanisms are in place that not only permit the expansion of the Chinese economy via the internet, but with Accoona’s business oriented approach the regime is effectively using the internet to help achieve that economic expansion. Nevertheless, one should not be fooled into believing that the leadership in Beijing is willing to sacrifice its political domination for economic achievement. As Princeton University scholar Perry Link articulated at a hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission last April, many wishfully believe that a “kind of liberalism” has arrived in China, but “that’s a mistake, a serious mistake.” Link noted that since taking power in 2003, Chinese President and CCP Chairman Hu Jintao has actually increased control over the media. Reporters Without Borders has drawn a similar conclusion with the bleak assessment: “The future for online freedom of expression in China does not look good.”
However, those wishing to convince themselves that increased transparency is inevitable in China should take a lesson from recent history, as the Chinese media industry experienced a series of reforms in the 1980’s that offer valuable insights for today. The decade witnessed the acquiescence by the CCP of commercial advertisements to be sold in the media. This resulted in an expansion in the number of media outlets as the potential to generate revenue increased. The subsequent proliferation and diversification of news sources produced a widely held assumption that the government would be unable to control the expanding media industry and that the society was destined to open up.
While the number of media organizations did indeed increase, top-level managers were still required to be appointed by the Propaganda Department. Once the candidate had been approved – it is worth noting that all of this is still the case today – the manager not only would receive a relatively high salary, but his career opportunities depended on performance. Any offense to the regime would cause a manager to lose his job; therefore, a climate of self-censorship saturated media organizations. Those predicting increased media freedom were proven wrong by history, and it appears that this scenario is destined to repeat itself in China – this time with respect to the internet.
It is instructive to examine the media developments of 1980’s China and apply them to the debates surrounding the ability of the internet to transform the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power. A free media never developed in China after the expansion of newspaper and broadcast organizations because the regime ensured that the only way to make money was to toe the party line. Presently, the circumstances have changed little. As internet companies compete for Beijing’s cooperation and approval to dominate the vast and expanding Chinese market, it should come as little surprise that the CCP has had astronomical success in maintaining its control over the free flow of information.
The United States Congress, however, has taken up the issue as Christopher Cox reintroduced his Global Internet Freedom Act in May 2005. Currently, the bill is in the House Committee on International Relations, though it is unclear how this bill would affect American companies doing business in China. Increased regulatory measures will likely inhibit the major United States based search engines from maintaining their market share in China. As scrutiny increases in both the media and congress, corporations such Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Cisco are going to start to worry about the repercussions in their primary market – the United States – with regards to their reputations with users and investors, as well as the legality of their operations in China.
This is what makes a company such as Accoona so worrisome. Accoona is geared towards China, not the United States. The Chinese government’s influence in the company far outpaces that of its American and European investors. In fact, while the March 8 introduction of the company did take place in the United States, the location chosen – the United Nations headquarters – is not without significance. And as new laws are introduced to regulate American internet companies in China, the Chinese government will be in prime position to buyout Accoona’s western investors.
Accoona’s official web site claims that the China Daily Information Company has “a significant equity stake in Accoona Corp.,” and that with the twenty year partnership, “Accoona is poised to be the premiere Internet Search Site for the fastest growing economy of the 21st Century.” With these developments the Chinese government may become immune to regulatory measures passed in the United States as Accoona is altered into an essentially Chinese company and seeks favor with the CCP, not the United States Congress. Thus, for those who continue to be deceived by the notion that the internet will provide a catalyst for transparency in the People’s Republic of China, the case of Accoona displays that the Chinese regime is likely to have greater influence on the internet than the internet will have on the regime.
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