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Internet claims too testy for China

June 6, 2010

Internet claims too testy for China
By Jian Junbo

SHANGHAI - European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes thinks China's Internet censorship qualifies as a trade barrier that should be taken up by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Speaking at the tail-end of a five-day trip to China on May 17, Kroes linked the matter to achieving a competitive environment for European companies and raised the censorship issue in a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang in Beijing.

"It is one of those issues that needs to be tackled within the WTO," she told reporters in Shanghai. "I am pushing wherever I can just to get European enterprises on a level playing field in China and the other way around."

She is not alone. Her remarks over the Chinese government's strict monitoring of Internet content within the country - in which  information deemed sensitive by the ruling Communist Party is blocked - is evidence that the European Union wants to join the United States' push on Internet freedom and likens the issue to free trade. United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in March that the administration of President Barack Obama was weighing the merits of taking China's censorship of Google to the WTO as an unfair barrier to trade.

In Google's case, it is now known that the US Internet search engine giant agreed to follow Chinese rules on the screening of information when it started its business in China. Google had been doing so until last year, at which time it said China had blocked access to its YouTube site and Chinese hackers had got into personal Gmail accounts. Google demanded in January that China lift the censorship or it would pull out of the country. With the Chinese government unmoved, Google in March rerouted its searches in mainland China to uncensored Google Hong Kong - and pressed Washington to take the issue to the WTO.

Some Western experts cast doubt on whether the US could ever win an argument at the WTO that mixed the censorship issue with trade rules. "The trade case may not be an easy one to make," Warren Maruyama, the former general counsel of the US Trade Representative's office, said in a report by Bloomberg. "Censorship per se is not a violation of the WTO," Maruyama, a partner at Hogan & Hartson LLP in Washington, told the news service. "You would have to show the violation of some specific WTO rule." [1]

China's Internet censorship is applied across all Internet service providers and Internet content providers, domestic or foreign (and in practice, the Chinese government may punish domestic firms even harder for violations). So the charges that censorship violates free trade and fair competition are difficult to sustain. If European or American Internet corporations cannot compete with local ones in China, they can hardly blame censorship.

Under the same competition conditions, foreign Internet corporations seem to be much weaker than Chinese ones. For instance, in place of YouTube there is Tudou or Youku, with instant access to Avatar or the latest episode of Lost. For every Google there is a Baidu that offers Lady Gaga's new hit or the Pink Floyd discography for download. Facebook has an alternative in Kaixin, Amazon has Taobao, Paypal has Alipay.

Many Chinese officials and scholars say the US and EU are trying to intervene in free trade with another non-trade factor, the free flow of information on the Internet, which (like the human-rights issue) they want to use to bring about changes to China's political and social system. Their suspicions seem to be supported by the fact that the EU and the US have kept mute on Internet censorship in other countries, such as India.

While many Chinese dislike their government's Internet censorship they also suspect the US and the EU are motivated to fight for free trade only when trade is in China's favor. Human rights and now Internet information freedom become weapons to deal with trade problems with China.

In this regard, they recall a bitter page in history in the early 19th century. When the United Kingdom could not sustain its growing deficits from the tea trade with China (partially also because the Qing imperial court refused to open the Chinese market for British goods), it smuggled opium into China.

When China moved to ban opium, British gunboats waged war. In the following decades, to force the Chinese government to open China's doors for so-called "free trade", other Western countries resorted to non-trade means, generally force, to achieve their goals. In short, about 170 years ago, the British started the first Opium War, and then other Western countries launched wars to force China to open its market (with the exception of the US, which achieved the goal by coercion).

Consequently, China quickly fell from being a wealthy power to a semi-colonized country, and soon thereafter the economy almost totally collapsed while its market was flooded with goods and capital from the West. According to some historical data, in 1820, 20 years before the first Opium War, China's gross domestic product was 32.4% of the word figure, the richest country at that time.

For many Chinese there is some similarity between today and the past. In the past, when the trade deficit became unbearable, the British resorted to force to impose their unjust, imperial and colonizer's terms on China, and other Western countries followed. Now, when the West's trade with China is not in its favor, non-trade excuses are introduced.

Like in the past, the West still takes the approach of intervening in China's internal political and social affairs for the sake of its own economic benefit. A big difference, though, is that more than a century ago the West used wars to force China to yield to its terms; now it resorts to wars without the smoke of gunpowder.

China's censorship to filter "harmful" information online clearly is a domestic issue and a political decision. Both domestic and foreign Internet enterprises should comply with the rules since they are legislated laws. Even if Beijing's censorship is not consistent with Western standards of freedom or human rights, it has nothing to do with free and fair trade.

If Kroes or US officials take China's censorship issue to the WTO, they would be using an economic excuse to intervene in China's politics. If Internet censorship could be related to free trade, and the WTO deemed this was the case, then virtually any Chinese domestic societal or political issue could be employed by Western countries to press China on trade issues.

For the West, China's economic issues can also be translated for battles in the political arena. For US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an Internet search engine unfettered by censorship is a human right and a political freedom.

For Beijing to give up sovereignty over domestic political and societal affairs would be untenable. In its view, censorship is a purely domestic matter unrelated to economic competition, and the state of competition between Internet corporations is an economic issue entirely separate from censorship.

1. Google Wants US to Weigh WTO Challenge to China Censorship, Bloomberg, March 3, 2010.

Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.

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