Too Hot for China’s Kitchen
By Tom Plate
Former Professor at University of California, Los Angeles,
Director of Asia Pacific Media Network
It is one of the positives of my largely happy life that I have never found myself in the field of public relations with a client like Beijing. It's not that there aren't many wondrously good stories about the People's Republic of China ― fabulous stories, in fact (hundreds of millions of otherwise dirt-poor people moving up into a better economic life, etc. etc.), and others we still have to learn about. But! As long as the old geezers in Beijing are still calling the biggest shots for the globe's most populated nation, China remains an account that no one would want. How many times have they been warned not to remind people of horrible Tiananmen Square?
Okay, the Chinese hacking of Google's email accounts on the mainland reaches not quite the same order of malevolence as the bloody head-cracking that took place in China's capital in June 1989. But, symbolically, it is too comfortably close: It's dealing with dissent and uncertainty with force. In the end, the people with egg ― if not blood ― on their face are those that pull the trigger or encourage the repressive hacking of ``dissident'' email accounts.
To be sure, having to work on the side of U.S. corporate public relations would not exactly be my cup of sake, either. But if I had to do it, there are clients far worse to have than Google. By the simple gesture of protesting the Chinese hacking, Google wound up atop the moral high ground ― almost by default.
Perhaps Google's moguls indeed were na?ve to think that China would cease being a censorship regime as time went on. But that's not the issue. The Chinese government can censor all it wants, any time it wants, for whatever reason it wants; after all, it is a sovereign state. But when it agrees to do business with an American company whose core business is servicing clients in a reasonably open way, it has a responsibility not to muck around with that business. If Beijing couldn't stand the heat that Google's email operations brought into the country, it should never have let it into the kitchen.
Note that the telling bifurcation of the Chinese public reaction really does reinforce the sense that there are at least two Chinas. First, there are the mainland traditionalists, who buy into the bread-instead-of-political-freedom approach and could care less about Google's problems. But then there are the Chinese yuppies, growing in number, comprising a new technocratic class, and helping to drive the emerging middle class of China. This New Class is increasingly influential and, from the Communist Party's perspective, perhaps increasingly dangerous.
So in a sense the central government and party is a victim of its own success. Now that so many people are no longer so ill-fed, ill-clothed and filled with hopelessness, they are looking to put new ideas in their heads as well as fresh bread on the table. For China, then, the Google affair must be accounted for as a setback.
To illustrate: In the late nineties, I had a confidential meeting with a man whose intellect and judgment anyone would greatly respect. He was a top professor from China's Central Party School, which is hugely influential. The meeting was billed as an "informal exchange of views," as these things tend to be dubbed; but before too long the professor got to his point: How can China develop a better image in the U.S.? The answer was obvious: Get rid of that brutal Tiananmen tank image and replace it with something kinder and gentler.
And, in fact, that's exactly ― in fact, brilliantly ― what the Chinese did with the Olympics: The "Olympic Bird Nest Stadium" became the new icon of an emerging China.
But now they are almost back to Tiananmen Square one. And so when unflashy Hu Jintao, China's leader, visits Washington later this month, he ought to flash Western cameras a smile and announce a rapprochement with Google. To help Hu save face, the Google-ites, should present China's leader with some kind of ``I'm Feelin' Lucky" award… or something like that!
That won't happen, of course, for some inside (and outside) China believe that it is now so big and so tough that it no longer matters what its image is. That's a mistake: Image is important whether you are Mother Teresa, the Catholic Church … or, well … Google.
As for Google, I must say that it's nice to see an American corporation - for once! ― looking like it may come out more than just okay. So Google loses the Chinese market? That may not be such a bad thing. Just ask media mega-mogul Rupert Murdoch whether it's that easy for a media company (even a giant like his News Corp) to make money in China! These days, Mr. Murdoch is probably even more frustrated than Mr. Google. So are a lot of people, alas. The present Chinese government's default position on some key issues is destined to cause some Western programs to melt down - or run away.
Syndicated columnist and veteran U.S. journalist Tom Plate (who uses Google email) is a Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future, as well as a board member of the Pacific Century Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.