Google and ALS Conference Debrief

March 23, 2010

After four days out of Beijing, I am painfully aware that work has piled up on me, not the least of which is a lot of news to read and posts to write. I am still in catch-up mode and was planning on devoting some of my free time today to doing battle with my Inbox.

And then I woke up to the news that Google had finally announced their intentions regarding their future in Mainland China, saying via online announcement (as they did in December when all this started) that they would essentially be shutting down Google.cn in China and offering that service from Hong Kong at Google.com.hk.

Because I had written about this issue at length on China/Divide, that seemed to be the best platform for a response to this latest issue. I therefore spent some time today on a bit of commentary for C/D. I would like to specifically point out, though, that my post on Google is in fact the third one of the day on C/D. Charles Custer and Kai Pan have already sounded off on the subject. All three links are as follows:

Custer: Google Losing the Message

Pan: Google Redirects! But Will The Chinese Government Block?!

Abrams: Google’s Hong Kong Gambit Is Public Relations Victory (will go live after 12:00am China time)

Enjoy. The short version of my piece is that Google’s “move” to HK doesn’t really change anything since the site will still be subject to censorship via the Great Firewall. That being said, Google seems to be winning the messaging war if the first round of press accounts are an accurate indication.

One additional topic for this post. As you recall from last week’s post, I attended a conference this past weekend at the University of Michigan Law School. I might write more about it later, but for now, I wanted to first say that the event itself, which was organized and run by the students of the Asia Law Society, was absolutely brilliant.

I’ve attended LOTS of conferences and seminars over the years, and these students got the job done in style. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that if you entrust an event to a bunch of very smart, well educated, law students (traditionally perfectionist, anal retentive types), you’re going to get good results.

Substantively, the conference dealt with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the Rule of Law. There were three panel discussions, concerning the environment, labor, and access to information. I was a speaker on the last panel.

The lunch speaker was Stanford Prof Chip Pitts, who I think basically gave us the introduction to his new textbook on CSR. It was an amazingly scholarly lecture. I don’t recall attending another lunch event where discussion included such disparate topics as Hugo Grotius‘ influence on international law and Google’s China strategy. By the end of the presentation, I was convinced that I needed to put together a CSR unit for my FDI class, which I plan on doing this Fall.

The panels had a great mix of academics, activists, businesspeople and legal practitioners. It was a pleasure meeting and speaking with them on a variety of issues.

With respect to my presentation, I discussed a bit of the content last week, so I won’t rehash. However, I would like to point out two interesting things. First, to be provocative, I did suggest that if China had given in to Google’s demands regarding censorship, it would have negatively affected Rule of Law in China.

Here’s what I meant. China has censorship rules. Google was supposed to follow them just like anyone else. If Beijing gave them a special pass, the public (I think justifiably) might not have appreciated the government giving special treatment to a huge, foreign multinational when other companies cannot just ignore the rules.

The other side of the argument, which I mentioned, is that the Rule of Law can be strengthened via free access to information. Scholars, activists, lawyers, the general public need information and a means of communicating with one another to push for institutional reforms and keep the system honest. In that sense, general liberalization of censorship is also good for the Rule of Law.

So which is preferable? I don’t think I really came down one way or the other, although I might have said that if Beijing changed the rules just for Google, then that would have been a poor decision.

Three of the speakers, all Americans, politely disagreed with my contention, suggesting I think that any win against censorship was worth it, even if Google received what appeared to be special treatment.

On the other hand, I noticed several of the Chinese students nodding their heads in agreement with me when I talked about special treatment. No surprise, I suppose, that I received different reactions based on nationality.

Second, and speaking of nationality, the conference reinforced something that I’ve seen over and over again when talking to Chinese students abroad. My presentation was meant to be the most fair, neutral treatment of the Google dispute as possible, an analysis of the legal situation without allowing my conclusions or comments to be prejudiced by normative concerns. In other words, I did not want my legal analysis “polluted” by my personal feelings about free speech or other outcomes.

That’s usually my standard approach at conferences (blogging, too, when I can), and it certainly isn’t remarkable. However, I consistently get very nice comments from Chinese students, who seem incredibly relieved that I didn’t simply engage in China bashing. (Just for the record, none of the other speakers were China bashers either.)

The favorable comments make me feel good, I suppose (I have a fragile ego, after all), but it really makes me wonder what sort of presentations/lectures/speeches these kids are used to attending (Chuck Schumer press conferences perhaps)? Is China bashing that common in the U.S. or are these students just super-sensitive? Maybe both.

This also made me realize that although there is a huge amount of foreign expat blogging on China out there, there really should be more (in English, on international-China topics) from Chinese expats overseas. This would fit in perfectly with what we’re trying to do over at China/Divide and provide a nice balance to our current stable of writers.

I’m therefore on a mission to find some good Chinese expat (or ex-expat) writers who can fit in with the China/Divide style and content. If anyone’s interested, please get in touch.

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