At the elite Tsinghua University here, some students were joking Friday that they had better download all the Internet information they wanted now in case Google left the country.
But to many of the young, well-educated Chinese who are Google’s loyal users here, the company’s threat to leave is in fact no laughing matter. Interviews in Beijing’s downtown and university district indicated that many viewed the possible loss of Google’s maps, translation service, sketching software, access to scholarly papers and search function with real distress. “How am I going to live without Google?” asked Wang Yuanyuan, a 29-year-old businessman, as he left a convenience store in Beijing’s business district.
China’s Communist rulers have long tried to balance their desire for a thriving Internet and the economic growth it promotes with their demands for political control. The alarm over Google among Beijing’s younger, better educated and more Internet savvy citizens — China’s future elite — shows how wobbly that balancing act can be. By publicly challenging China’s censorship, Google has stirred up the debate over the government’s claim that constraints on free speech are crucial to political stability and the prosperity that has accompanied it. Even if it is unlikely to pose any immediate threat to the Communist Party, Google’s move has clearly discomfited the government, Chinese analysts say.
“The average age of Chinese netizens is still very young,” said Hu Yong, a journalism professor at Peking University. “This is a matter of the future and whether the government’s Internet policy wants to fight with the future. “If this process goes on, more and more people are going to realize that their freedom of information is being infringed upon, and this could bring changes down the line,” he said.
Google may rank a distant second to the Baidu search engine, but its estimated 80 million users are comparatively better educated and wealthier. Surveys show that roughly two-thirds are college educated. A Beijing technology consultant, Kaiser Kuo, describes them as “a potentially very noisy constituency.” An Internet expert who insisted on anonymity for fear of repercussions from the government said: “They have bought into the bargain of get rich, have a good job, life gets better, just don’t mess with the Communist Party.”
If Google leaves, he said, “they may start asking, ‘What’s wrong with my country that it doesn’t let me do this?’ ” “It is not like they are going to take to the streets,” he added. “But it further erodes the legitimacy of what the Communist Party is doing. This is a group the party doesn’t want to lose any more than it already has.” On the other hand, the Chinese government managed to cut off nearly all Internet access to an entire region of 19 million people for half a year without encountering any significant political resistance. The blackout, imposed in the western Xinjiang region after deadly riots in July, is only now being gingerly lifted.
Other Internet users argue that Google must respect the Chinese government’s policies if it wants to do business here. “I think government control of this is quite reasonable,” said Liu Qiang, 29, a Tsinghua University mechanical engineer graduate student. “Our party needs to stabilize its governance.” Some predict that any inconvenience caused by Google’s exit will be short-lived. “The Internet is really big,” said Wang Quiya, a 27-year-old worker in Beijing’s financial district. “Something will take its place, right?”
The government’s recent efforts to tighten Internet controls have already cost some Chinese some pleasures. In the name of rooting out pornography and piracy, Chinese authorities have shut down hundreds of Web sites offering films, music downloads, video games and other forms of entertainment since November.
Li An, a Tsinghua University senior with wide eyes and thick black braids, said she used to download episodes of “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” from sites run by BT China that are now closed. “I love American television series!” she said with frustration during a pause from studying Japanese at a university fast-food restaurant on Friday.
The loss of Google would hit her much harder, she said, because she relies on Google Scholar to download academic papers for her classes in polymer science. “For me, this is terrible,” Ms. Li said. Some students contend that even after Google pulls out, Internet space will continue to shrink. Until now, Google has shielded Baidu by manning the front line in the censorship battle, said one 20-year-old computer science major at Tsinghua. “Without Google, Baidu will be very easy to manipulate,” he said. “I don’t want to see this trend.”
A 21-year old civil engineering student predicted a strong reaction against the government. “If Google really leaves, people will feel the government has gone too far,” he insisted over lunch in the university cafe. But asked whether that reaction would influence the government to soften its policies, he concentrated on his French fries. “I really don’t know,” he said.