After a brief and stormy relationship, the government of the world's most populous nation and the sponsor of the world's most visited internet website have finally said enough. The computer services giant Google says it will no longer censor searches by Chinese internet users on behalf of Chinese authorities and will shut down its mainland Chinese search service. A spurned Beijing has replied, "No regrets".
The break-up appears to have been prompted by Beijing's move last year to block Chinese internet users from gaining access to Google's enormously popular YouTube site. Another factor, fiercely denied by Beijing, was a cyber-attack that Google has said originated in China and targeted it and 20 other companies. The attack, apparently aimed at the Gmail accounts of human-rights activists, damaged Google's search engine, the company said.
In a tone befitting an emerging superpower, Beijing has donned a confident face. Still, for a government that is justifiably proud of its enormous success in ushering many in this nation of 1.3 billion people into the 21st century, there is no gainsaying the fact that Google's move is a major blow to its image. It means that one of the world's most prominent corporations is no longer willing to co-operate in its censorship of the internet.
The separation of China and Google doubtless will give rise to simplistic declarations on both sides of the argument about internet freedom. Amid the heat generated by the debate, it should be remembered that a country has every right, even duty, to set the terms of its engagement with the world. No government can be expected to condone, for instance, the use of the internet for trafficking in pornography, defaming religion or advocating insurrection.
At the same time, it also should be remembered that while the internet is a tool for boundless mischief, even evil, it is for all but a fraction of its users primarily a source of entertainment. As for the political dangers posed by the internet, it should be remembered that in the long term, the internet does not discredit governments; bad policies discredit governments. The China-Google split poses two questions to ponder. One is whether China's gargantuan economy will suffer from Google's estrangement and continued internet censorship. For our part, we doubt it will. Beijing has been remarkably successful in demonstrating that a thriving marketplace of goods and services doesn't necessarily evolve into a thriving marketplace of ideas.
But in the wake of Google's exit, tens of millions of Chinese may wonder about the wisdom of its government taking such extraordinary lengths to curb their internet use. It is for this reason that the effort may be in the long run self-defeating.